A study led by scholars at the Colorado School of Public Health and published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has drawn rebuttal from an unusual source: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Essentially, the research found that mothers living within 10 miles of natural gas wells in rural Colorado were as much as 30 percent more likely to give birth to babies with congenital heart defects than mothers who did not live near gas wells. The research didn’t prove that drilling caused the defects.
As I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS reported last week, even though the study made use of the health department's own records of 124,842 births from 1996 to 2009, Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk was dismissive of its outcome.
“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” said Wolk. “Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
The health department’s volley is set amid a pitched battle over energy development in Colorado. Environmentalists have faced off against industry groups, and local moratoriums on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have butted against the relatively industry-friendly approach of Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The School of Public Health study also landed at a time when many state residents are being exposed to an intense media relations campaign that touts the safety of fracking. The ads placed on radio, TV and billboards by Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, a non-profit created by major energy companies Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy, have become ubiquitous.
For their part, the authors of the study acknowledged many of the same limitations pointed out by Wolk. But one out-of-state researcher who worked on the study said he found the health department’s reaction to be “defensive.”
“What I would expect from the public health agency would be to acknowledge that there are legitimate questions and that this has advanced our ability to frame it more clearly … and to pursue better research either to show where this one went awry or to provide additional evidence on the same question,” said David Savitz, an epidemiologist at Brown University in Rhode Island.