As natural gas development expands, policymakers,
communities and public health experts are increasingly turning to health impact
assessments (HIA) as a means of predicting the effects of drilling on local
communities, according to a new study from the Colorado School of Public
The report, published in the American Journal of Public Health, highlights lessons learned when
scientists from the school were hired to assess the possible health impacts of
fracking in a small western Colorado town.
"Health impact assessments can be a useful public
health tool to determine the possible health effects of natural gas development
on the local level," said the study's lead author Roxana Zulauf Witter,
MD, MPH, at the Colorado School of Public Health. "In fact, our study is
now being looked at as a model nationwide."
What the team found
In 2009, the Colorado School of Public Health was contracted
by Garfield County to conduct a health impact assessment of 200 proposed
natural gas wells in the community of Battlement Mesa.
The team found that the natural gas project could contribute
to health effects such as headaches, upper respiratory illness, nausea and
nosebleeds and a possible small increase in lifetime cancer risks as a result
of air emissions.
The project would also increase safety risks and mental
health effects due to traffic and community changes associated with the
According to the study, the HIA offers a roadmap for other
communities and industry to follow in determining the health impacts of gas
drilling. It also develops recommendations to reduce those impacts.
"We believe we accomplished the important objective of
elevating public health into many levels of natural gas policy
discussion," the study said. "The Battlement Mesa HIA provides
substantial and valuable guidance for local decision makers to protect public
At the same time, the industry can use HIA findings to
identify and eliminate health issues before they become problems.
"The whole goal is to provide recommendations to reduce
impacts before you start," Witter said. "The assessment is a means to
an end. It's a critical public health tool."