Colorado toxicology official warns parents of tests like one that found benzene in Erie boy's blood

Posted at 5:24 PM, Jul 13, 2018

ERIE, Colo. – The chief toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is pushing back on blood tests some have turned to in order to try and figure out whether they are being affected by organic compounds often found at oil and gas development sites, saying the only fail-safe place to analyze such tests is the Centers for Disease Control laboratory.

The CDPHE’s chief of toxicology, Mike Van Dyke, spoke with Denver7 about the tests some people are doing as they look for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their blood.

An Erie woman who paid a Lafayette doctor to conduct one of the blood tests on her 6-year-old son told Denver7 earlier this year that the tests found her son was in the 85th percentile for benzene, ethylbenzene and o-xylene. She speculated that the 150+ oil and gas wells within a mile radius of her home were to blame for the elevated levels, as those chemicals are often found in fracking operations.

The woman, Dr. Elizabeth Ewaskowitz, filed a formal complaint with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee, after which both it and the CDPHE said they would investigate.

But the oil and gas industry pushed back against her claims, noting that benzene is found in many other household items as well as gasoline that runs people’s vehicles and that a CDPHE study was conducted in Erie in November2017 and found "measured levels of all VOC's were well below federal or state health guideline values" and suggested a "low risk of harmful health effects."

Dr. John Hughes, who conducts the VOC blood tests on patients and treats them in Aspen and Lafayette, stood behind the tests in an interview with Denver7 earlier this year, saying, “There’s really no debate there. It is solid science.”

But Van Dyke, in an interview Friday, disputed that claim.

“I think these blood tests are a huge challenge. These blood tests really require really specialized methods. They require really specialized techniques to ensure there’s not contamination,” he said. “What we’re aware of is really, at the levels we’re talking about … we’re only aware of one laboratory in the country who can analyze consistently at those levels, and that’s the CDC laboratory.”

He said the CDPHE doesn’t encourage people to do the tests on their own for two reasons: the tests are difficult to conduct and it is difficult to pinpoint the source of a person’s exposure to the VOCs.

“VOCs like we’re talking about, things like benzene, there’s lots of different sources for them,” Van Syke said. “So when we get a blood test back, we’re not sure if this person is exposed from an oil and gas operation [or] they’re expose from driving their car into their garage, increasing the benzene level in their home.”

He said a “better plan” for people hoping to know what their exposure to VOCs from oil and gas sites would be to have air sampling tests done inside and outside their homes.

”Your blood test is only reflecting your last few hours to a day or two of exposure. So whatever you did most-recently could really affect the tests,” Van Dyke said. “In terms of percentiles … it’s also important to keep in mind that the entire percentile is still within the normal population range, and the way that’s done is the CDC does sampling across the United States … and these are normal people who are not exposed or don’t live close to oil and gas.”

As to claims made by Dr. Hughes that “the state is in bed with the oil and gas industry” and is thus not looking out for Coloradans’ health, Van Dyke brushed those aside.

“The health department’s responsibility is to protect public health,” he said. “The science is what drives the decisions at CDPHE and the industry does not influence our decisions at CDPHE.”

Van Dyke said that the department went out to Ewaskowitz’s home to conduct a follow-up air sample test after she sent in the blood test.

“What we found is really the air doesn’t look any different near their homes than in other places in Erie. We didn’t really see anything that caused a health concern,” Van Dyke said.

But Ewaskowitz, a pharmacist herself, says that the samples were taken just hours after a severe thunderstorm moved through and that the department said they would need to repeat the test.

“But I haven’t heard anything further from them,” she said. “We’re back to that same first problem, which is the time point for doing this air sample doesn’t in the least coincide with the time point when the blood sample was taken from my son.”

She’s not convinced that the long-term effects of exposure to VOCs are being seriously considered and continues to push for the 2,500-foot setback that Initiative 97 proponents are hoping to get onto November’s ballot. She says she’s spent more money to rule out that the benzene in her son’s blood came from other household items like carpet or hardwood floors and continues to believe the VOCs are coming from outside her home.

“It’s not that I’m trying to attack an industry or anything,” Ewaskowitz said. “I’m genuinely trying to look at the scientific basis of the test results I have received and trying to make sure that I’m doing the best I can for managing the health of my family.”

Denver7's Blair Miller contributed to this report.