New Activist Study Offers More of the Same: Claims of Fracking Health Harms, But No Evidence
A new study released this week by anti-fracking activist group Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) found 18 million Americans live within one mile of an oil and gas well, and then concluded those people face elevated health risks because of “benzene, formaldehyde and particulate matter” emissions from oil and gas production.
The authors provide no new research to support this conclusion. And they also ignored more than a dozen air sampling studies that have found production site emissions are protective of public health. Instead, the researchers relied on past epidemiological studies – none of which proved causation – to arrive at the conclusion that oil and gas production emissions harm public health. From the report,
“When people live within a mile of these operations, they have a higher risk of being hospitalized for numerous medical issues, including heart and neurological problems, cancers and increased asthma incidence and severity, according to separate peer-reviewed studies.
“Residential proximity to these operations has also been associated with adverse birth outcomes, including pre-term birth, lower birth weight, neural tube defects and congenital heart defects.”
If this all sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s straight out of an activist playbook that can be traced to a 2012 media strategy memo urging environmentalists to make connections between health problems and HF — even when no evidence to support the linkage exists. But that shouldn’t be surprising since the man responsible for that memo, Seth Shonkoff, also happens to be practicing what he preaches as a co-author of this new “study.”
Unfortunately, at least two media outlets fell victim to Shonkoff’s deceptive media strategy when they failed to apply any scrutiny to the report and pretty much reprinted its press release. Here are two things everyone, including the media, should know about this “study” and the activists behind it.
Manufacturing Anti-Fracking Research is PSE’s Policy
The study’s press release characterizes the research as a collaborative effort between PSE and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley – where Shonkoff, PSE’s executive director, happens to be a professor – and Harvey Mudd College. The press release fails to note that PSE is funded by the anti-fracking Heinz Foundation and was co-founded by Cornell University professor and prominent anti-fracking activist Anthony Ingraffea, which would have presented an instant credibility red flag to any report that has followed his shenanigans over the past decade or so.
Ingraffea, who is listed as a senior fellow at PSE, was clearly involved in crafting the final version of this study, as the authors note in the report’s acknowledgements that they “are grateful for comments and suggestions to this manuscript” made by Ingraffea.
Ingraffea’s editorial input is notable, considering he has admitted that his research is a “form of advocacy,” and that he deliberately includes “advocacy-laced words and phrases in our papers.” He has also suggested that his research projects begin with a conclusion already partially conceived.
The study’s representative from Harvey Mudd College, Tanja Srebotnjak, previously worked for the anti-fracking Natural Resources Defense Council. According to her Harvey Mudd College bio, “While at NRDC, she researched the health risks associated with unconventional energy development in the United States.”
So to say the researchers are a bit biased would be a massive understatement. But their bias is actually surpassed by the inadequacies of the research they continue to trot out as “evidence” that fracking harms public health. But that hasn’t kept Shonkoff (he’s not only the mastermind — he’s the messenger, too!) and company from continuing to peddle it to the public.
PSE Continues to Regurgitate Flawed Research that Fail to Prove Causation
At least two independent third parties have criticized studies cited in this report, a vast majority of which Shonkoff and his PSE colleagues continue to try to present as evidence of fracking’s adverse health effects.
EID highlighted back in May that a Mount Pleasant, Pa., zoning board ruled Shonkoff’s testimony claiming fracking harms public health was “equivocal, not properly founded, and not credible” largely because he completely ignored numerous studies that took direct air measurements and found no elevated risks, yet cited epidemiological studies that actually “do not prove causation,” as the zoning board noted,
“…only one (study mentioned in Shonkoff’s testimony) included a benzene citizen grab sample in Pennsylvania, which Dr. Shonkoff acknowledged was no higher than we would often have short-term exposure to in an urban environment or at a gas station or in traffic; and others involved estimates of potential emissions and not actual air monitoring.”
Shonkoff apparently didn’t learn much from that experience, as the same issues the Mount Pleasant Zoning Board called him out for are prevalent throughout this study.
For instance, the study claims that “a number of studies indicate that there may be negative health outcomes associated with living in close proximity to oil and gas development.” But a close look at the 15 studies used to support this claim reveals that just two — a thoroughly debunked 2012 study led by anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie and the equally infamous “bucket brigade” study (Macey et al. 2014) referred to in the above quote from the Mount Pleasant Zoning Board meeting — took actual air measurements.
Each of these studies was included in a recent evaluation of 32 of the most prominent fracking health studies conducted by environmental research group Resources for the Future (RFF). RFF, hardly a shill for the oil and gas industry, offered a surprisingly blunt criticism of the health research, primarily due to the fact that these studies fail to prove causation,
“Overall, we find that the literature does not provide strong evidence regarding specific health impacts and is largely unable to establish mechanisms for any potential health effects.
“Due to the nature of the data and research methodologies, the studies are unable to assess the mechanisms of any health impacts (i.e., whether a certain impact is caused by air pollution, stress, water pollution, or another burden). Even where good evidence is offered for a link between unconventional oil and gas development and health, the causal factor(s) driving this association are unclear.”
RFF also found that none of the major categories of the prominent fracking health studies that have been repeatedly trotted out by activists were “high quality,” while studies on birth defects, hospitalizations and multiple symptoms were cumulatively deemed to be of “low quality.” Specifically, RFF criticized several studies cited in the PSE report (Casey et al., 2016; Jemielita et al., 2015; McKenzie et al., 2014; McKenzie et al. 2017; Rasmussen et al. 2016; Stacy et al. 2015; Tustin et al., 2017) for various flaws (click here for specifics).
The PSE study authors actually acknowledge these flaws, but still insist that these studies provide “indication” that emissions are harming public health.
“While many findings in the public health literature on oil and gas development are sometimes inconsistent and studies often lack the designs to arrive at causal claims, the body of literature serves as an indication that proximity to oil and gas development is associated with adverse health risks and impacts.”
Meanwhile, there is no mention in the PSE study of research that took actual samples from the well site and nearby properties. 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 these studies that are based on actual air samples was a 2017 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (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. 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:
“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.”
Given the contrast in the quality of studies showing emissions from oil and gas development are protective of public health and the flaws of the research Shonkoff and company keep trotting out, it’s not all that surprising that his testimony was rejected by the Mount Pleasant Zoning Board and roughly half of the studies cited in this report as “evidence” of fracking’s harms were criticized directly by RFF.
EID does not dispute this study’s topline conclusion that nearly 18 million Americans live near oil and gas wells. However, the researchers not only fail to prove their secondary conclusion — that close proximity to oil and gas production causes health problems — with the epidemiological studies cited in this paper. They also choose to ignore numerous air sampling studies that show emissions are protective of public health (not to mention reports showing “enormous benefits” for those living near fracking sites).
This outright disregard for objectivity and scientific integrity from a group of actual scientists would be confounding if it weren’t abundantly evident at this point that media manipulation is PSE’s true specialty.