Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks emit toxic substances into the air or leak their contents into the ground, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

Are these ones leaking?
Are these ones leaking?

People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.

Karen Protz certainly thinks being surrounded by gas wells is at least partially responsible for her overwhelming health problems. In 2005, as the fracking boom brought gas wells closer to her log cabin on a winding mountain road, Protz began to feel sick. “I was walking five miles a day for three years to lose weight,” says Protz. “Then I started not feeling good: tired, lethargic. I’m Italian and I love to eat, and I couldn’t even look at pizza. I started having heart palpitations.”

Karen Protz
Karen Protz

In the years since, her problems have multiplied and worsened. She gets frequent sinus infections, and has had several benign growths on her thyroid. More recently she has suffered from blood clots and a mild stroke for which her lab work can produce no explanation. Protz gets out of breath just from climbing a flight of stairs and is on oxygen at night, though she has never been a smoker. When she goes back to visit family in Delaware, or even just east to Denver, her symptoms subside. But they come back as soon as she returns home. She might move, but her husband works in the area and her grown children live here. Sitting in her living room, under the giant elk and deer heads over the fireplace, Protz tears up as she says, “I just wish I didn’t feel like I was 70 in a 53-year-old body.”

The gas companies note that no studies have demonstrated that their wells in the area are causing these problems. There’s a dearth of good data on how much VOCs people breathe in due to living near a well. “If people have health concerns we take that seriously, but we have seen no data that there is a direct cause or correlation between symptoms and our operations,” says Doug Hoch, a spokesman for Encana, one of the major gas production companies in the area. Protz and others who are sick counter that this is partly because the high concentrations of VOCs in the air are not being properly measured. Colorado has relatively stringent requirements for air quality reporting, but they rely on companies to do the reporting themselves. There is also the issue of access to the wells, which of course the gas companies do not grant to independent researchers. Nonetheless, a 2012 study by the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health found VOCs in Garfield County five times above the EPA’s Hazard Index level.