As many have likely heard, Colorado health officials are planning more testing after the state’s air monitoring lab measured a benzene level above federal guidelines at a Greeley school this month. On November 5th the lab measured a benzene level of 10.24 parts per billion at Bella Romero 4-8 Academy in Greeley, which is in excess of  the short-term health-based guideline for benzene, which is 9 parts per billion. Thanks for this anonymous release written last week highlighting the frustration and exasperation with state health officials that say “they’re trying to pinpoint source of pollution measured,” when there is a fracking site immediately adjacent to the school. You can learn more at the Denver Post here. 

Denver: The state’s air monitoring mobile lab measured a benzene level that is above the health-based screening guideline for short-term health impacts. The state health department cannot know for certain that people were not harmed by this single elevated measurement but is taking swift action to investigate the cause of the elevated level and conduct additional monitoring. The state has been conducting targeted air monitoring after releasing the findings of the Human Health Risk Assessment for Oil and Gas Operations in Colorado study in the fall. Although it has recently committed to monitor some of the reckless actions of the oil and gas industry, however, in usual form, the state will not go so far as to take necessary, responsible action to ensure public health is actually protected.  As we demonstrated after the tragedy in Firestone, only once it has been conclusively determined that people have died as a result of the reckless actions of the oil and gas industry will there be any type of commitment to take incremental and inadequate steps to protect public health, safety and welfare.  

The mobile lab measured a benzene level of 10.24 parts per billion (ppb) at Bella Romero 4-8 Academy in Greeley on Nov. 5 and confirmed the results late last week. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) short-term health-based guideline is 9 ppb. Health-based guidelines are set to protect people and are much lower than the levels at which people would typically experience negative health effects. Notwithstanding, we are also fully aware that the World Health Organization has declared that “Benzene is carcinogenic to humans and no safe level of exposure can be recommended.”   

The 10.24 ppb measurement was found at the school, which is approximately 1,200 feet from a well pad operated by Extraction Oil and Gas and also is near other oil and gas-related well pad and support facilities. The exact source or sources have not been identified. State officials are conducting an investigation of nearby oil and gas activities on the day of the high reading. The high measurement occurred during a single 45-minute sample reading. The entire test spanned 1,500 hours over 85 days, and other benzene readings that were concerning were measured, however press releases were not issued for those. 

“While we can’t say conclusively why this instance of elevated benzene occurred, it’s pretty obvious to be the massive fracking site we allowed to be built right next to the school.  Even so, the state is not committing to taking further action now to ensure the kids in this school and people in this community have peace of mind and clean air to breathe,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The state is committed to not much, other than kicking the can down the road while harmful fracking continues to impact thousands of Coloradans:

  • Sending the air monitoring lab back to the school to collect additional measurements. The state will report any other elevated benzene levels as soon as data can be validated.
  • Investigating possible sources of the benzene and steps to avoid further elevated levels of benzene.
  • Reviewing additional air monitoring data being collected by Extraction from the vicinity of the school. This includes employing an independent consultant to verify air monitoring data from on-site and in nearby communities.
  • Aggressively moving forward to implement the mandates set forward in the new oil and gas law, SB 19-181. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is implementing tighter controls on emissions in the pre-production phase of oil and gas development. The Air Quality Control Commission will enact rules to reduce emissions during all phases of oil and gas development.
  • Working directly with the school and community members to ensure they understand what this elevated measurement means and what the state and operator are doing in response.
  • Developing a new process for flagging and reporting higher emission levels within 72 hours, much earlier than the current timeline, in which the state provides a full monitoring report a few weeks after the mobile laboratory moves to a new site.

Exposure to benzene at levels measured at Bella Romero can cause short-term health effects like headaches, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory issues. At much higher levels than in this particular event, it can also cause short-term health effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. No statistically significant increased risk of cancer or other long-term health effects can be predicted by a single measurement above the health-based guideline.

In general, people who may be experiencing short-term health effects from benzene should consider staying indoors as much as possible. It’s much easier to say this, than take meaningful action to regulate the oil and gas industry – sort of like “thoughts and prayers” after gun violence.  

People who are experiencing more serious or persistent symptoms should contact a health care provider, as expressed in this statement, don’t rely on our agencies to help much. People who have health concerns about oil and gas operations or who have questions about this finding can contact the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program at 303-389-1687 or