Another Activist Study Targets Children, Alleges Fracking Health Harms With No Evidence
A few flaws have emerged time and time again in anti-fossil fuel activist studies attempting to link fracking to health problems. And a new report released this week may be the most comprehensive collection of these clichéd shortcomings yet.
Not only is this “study” claiming fracking threatens the neurodevelopment of babies and children authored by researchers with direct ties to groups actively working to ban fracking, it is also a “literature review,” which is a fancy term for a book report that offers no new research. And in typical fashion, the only studies reviewed are cherry-picked reports by fellow activist researchers. The report also focuses on woefully limited epidemiological studies that fail to take measurements and — most glaringly — fail to prove causation.
Last but not least, the study targets children — a deliberate media strategy concocted by the leader of a group that one of the study’s authors happens to be a part of. The end goal of that strategy is to drive regulations aimed at curtailing oil and gas development — not by making substantive contributions to the scientific debate — but by generating headlines via emotional arguments. The strategy didn’t work this time, as the only headlines the study generated were Iimited to anti-fracking friendly fringe outlets such as Russia News Now, The Guardian and Environmental Health News. Here are five things to know about this new “study” and why the media may be catching on to the clichéd flaws encapsulated by this report.
#1. Study was authored by anti-fracking researchers and published in activist-led journal
Incredibly, the authors of this study report no conflicts of interest. This is misleading on many levels.
Lead author Ellen Webb is from the Center for Environmental Health, which works actively to“[i]mpose moratoriums or bans that delay fracking.” Another author, Laura Dyrszka, is from Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation and has a stated goal of banning fracking.
Not to be outdone, co-author Sheila Bushkin is a member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which sent out multiple letters to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding a moratorium on fracking. She also serves on the Continuing Medical Education (CME) committee for Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) – a group founded by “ban fracking” activist Anthony Ingraffea that has produced similar “research” targeting children. But most tellingly, Dr. Bushkin spoke at a “PA Harmed by Fracking” press conference in Albany in January 2013. It was hosted by the anti-energy group Frack Action to promote a TV ad, paid for by Food & Water Watch, that implored “Learn from Pennsylvania. Ban fracking.”
During that conference Bushkin told the audience:
“It’s frightening to know that this is allowed to go on anywhere in the United States and I hope that it never happens in New York state.”
So how in the world did a study authored by researchers with such clear conflicts of interest end up in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? It likely something to do with the fact that the editor-in-chief of said journal, Reviews on Environmental Health (REH), is David Carpenter, who also happens to lead the aforementioned Concerned Health Professionals of New York.
REH is a self-described quarterly peer-reviewed journal that “aims to fill the need for rapid publication of specialized comprehensive review articles on hot topics in the field of environmental health.” But recent developments indicate Carpenter’s journal might want to focus less on “rapid publication” and more on quality.
Carpenter’s publication recently found itself in some hot water after it was forced to retract a study claiming dangers from WI-FI. Carpenter, who is known for employing some dubious research practices (more on that in a bit), admitted that the “study” wasn’t peer reviewed at all prior to publication in his journal. Carpenter’s past research claiming dangers from “power lines, electrical wiring, appliances and hand-held devices” such as cell phones could explain why he made an exception. He has actually said he would like WI-FI banned from schools.
Carpenter was also the lead-author of the infamous “Bucket Brigade” study conducted by activist group Global Community Monitor that claimed to find dangerous emissions from oil and gas development based on samples that were literally collected in buckets lined with plastic bags. Not shockingly, the study’s results were roundly debunked. Granted, GCM’s focus — similar to the authors of this study — isn’t science and data. By GCM’s own admission, “The Bucket Brigade is not a scientific experiment. Our focus is on organizing. We use science, but only in the service of organizing.”
In case you lost count, this study’s authors are tied to a total of four groups actively seeking to ban fracking. Contrary to the authors’ claims, that’s a textbook definition of a conflict of interest.
#2. Not only is the “study” a literature review — it’s a highly selective one at that
Again, it is essential to understand that this “study” is a literature review that includes no original field sampling or research. The authors also openly admit, “We did not include a formal quality assessment of the literature.” EID agrees and would add that it’s a massive understatement!
For instance, the report cites a thoroughly rebuked 2012 study (McKenzie et al.) in an attempt to support its argument of elevated benzene emissions from oil and gas production sites. The authors conveniently omit the fact that the study was disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment due to several flaws, most notably the fact that it failed to account for upwind emissions from a major interstate just one mile away.
This report used an infamous 2015 study (Paulik et al.) as an example of potentially dangerous levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) emissions near oil and gas development. But there’s a big problem — that study was retracted and the corrected version of that study found emissions are well below the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says would be harmful to public health.
The main text of the report also claims another study (Colborn et al.) “found levels of PAHs (PAH16 ~ 15.5 ng/m3) near natural gas well pads dangerous to human health.” But in small text accompanying a table included in the report it is revealed that Colborn et al. actually “reported low PAH air concentrations.”
As egregious as the inclusion of the thoroughly debunked McKenzie study and the misrepresentation of the findings of the Paulik and Colborn studies are, they are trumped by the fact that numerous studies based on actual measurements that have found emissions near oil and gas development are protective of public health were omitted from the report entirely.
EID documented 18 such studies in our recently released Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking, and the University of Cincinnati just announced preliminary results of a new study that finds emissions from oil and gas development are protective of public health.
The most comprehensive of the numerous studies based on actual air samples that find fracking is protective of public health is a 2017 CDPHE health assessment that collected over 10,000 air samples in parts of Colorado with “substantial” oil and gas operations, and found “low risk of harmful health effects from combined exposure to all substances during oil and gas development.”
Dr. Mike Van Dyke, head of environmental epidemiology at CDPHE, noted when the data was released,
“This isn’t cherry-picked air sampling data. This is all air sampling data.”
CDPHE’s Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director Dr. Larry Wolk told the Greeley Tribune that “we don’t see anything to be concerned with” in regard to oil and natural gas development and public health. Unlike these researchers — who fail to provide context on dose, exposure and reasonable exposure pathways — Wolk’s evaluation was based not only on actual real-world data, but good old-fashioned common sense:
“I’m not going to tell anybody to go drink a pint of liquid petroleum or stand over an active well site and wave the fumes in to breath[e] them in. … Nobody would argue that this stuff isn’t toxic, but it’s all about exposure to toxins, and we don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time.”
Clearly, any truly objective “literature review” would have included these studies. But these researchers clearly are anything but objective.
#3. Authors admit “most studies” reviewed find emissions “below federal exposure limits”
In a stunning revelation, the researchers basically admit the bulk of the research reviewed revealed no evidence of harmful emissions,
“In many of these studies, chemical concentrations were below federal exposure limits, but above the concentrations found to have health effects; that is because government standards do not take into account lowlevel, chronic exposure experienced by the increasing numbers of people in close proximity to oil and gas operations (6).”
The latter conclusion — which is apparently the authors’ collective opinion rather than scientific consensus shared by regulators and health officials — is directly debunked by the aforementioned CDPHE evaluation of 10,000 air samples, which found,
“All measured air concentrations were below short- and long-term ‘safe’ levels of exposure for non-cancer health effects, even for sensitive populations.”
#4. Study does not prove causation
The authors of this study concede that, “Currently, only a small number of studies document a causal relationship between pollution created by unconventional oil and gas operations and undesirable health outcomes.”
But in reality, if such studies actually exist — they are not reviewed in this report, and this literature review certainly does not document causation.
Even Laura Grant, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management in the UK noted that the research merely identified links to the various pollutants rather than providing clear evidence that “has directly caused such problems among those near shale gas sites,” according to The Guardian.
As Van Dyke recently explained, the mere presence of chemicals does not necessarily constitute a health risk, which depends largely on dose level and exposure. The report doesn’t address the latter fact at all, and even concedes, “Definitive conclusions based on comprehensive measurement and analysis of exposure levels is still to be determined.”
So not only does this report fail to prove causation — it’s light years away from doing so. No wonder these types of studies have drawn criticism from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and environmental research group Resources For the Future for being ‘low quality,’ ‘not conclusive’ and ‘contradictory.’
#5. Focus on children straight out of activist researcher playbook
Given the criticism of these types of reports from independent third party experts such as CDPHE and RFF, and activist researchers’ continued dismissal of studies based on actual measurements, it is clear such reports are more about generating alarmist headlines than adding to the serious scientific discussion of fracking’s alleged health effects.
What better way to distract from a lack of scientific evidence of harm and generate headlines by playing to peoples’ emotions than incorporating children into the narrative? That’s exactly what two of the organizations with direct ties to the authors of this report do in an unabashed manner.
This report is a textbook example of the deliberate media strategy to draw ties between fracking and health issues even when no hard evidence exists. What it clearly does not do is add any notable value to the scientific conversation regarding fracking and health impacts.