Inflammatory Infant Mortality Study a Prime Example of Flawed ‘Pay to Play’ Science
An inflammatory new study claiming fracking “kills babies” was published last week by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). The study received zero mainstream media attention, which probably has something to do with its numerous glaring flaws. But it also points to a wider problem – that of subpar studies appearing in what are known as “pay-to-play” open-access journals such as SCIRP.
To be clear, this is not to suggest that all studies that are published in open-access journals are flawed. But it is important to note that there has been an alarming amount of deeply unsound research claiming fracking harms public health coming out of these kinds of journals (stay tuned for a deeper dive on that soon).
“Open-access” means that anything these journals publish is free to the public. But in turn, study authors have to pay a fee – sometimes thousands of dollars – to have their work published by the journal. Though this allows for more access to the public due to the fact that published studies are not behind a paywall, in many cases, these publications aren’t subject to the more rigorous scientific vetting process that other journals require.
Open access journals have been criticized for publishing “studies regardless of whether they’re credible and scientifically sound” and having “screening processes that are too weak to prevent a lot of dubious findings from getting into circulation.” In fact, SCIRP is included in a 2010 list of “predatory publishers” compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall. Nature also heavily criticized SCIRP in 2013 for “duplicated papers online that had been published elsewhere” and listing people on its editorial board who had no clue they were named.
The Federal Trade Commission actually issued a warning and filed a lawsuit against one such group which runs “pay-to-play” journals in 2016, stating:
“If you’re a scholar or scientist, you know the value of being published in an academic journal. Unfortunately, some dishonest publishers also understand this — and have used it to profit from rather than promote legitimate advancements in research and academia.”
Fact: Researchers Don’t Take Water Samples, Meanwhile Actual Samples Show No Elevated Risk
Like many of the recent studies claiming fracking harms public health, the researchers didn’t even bother to take water samples to support their claim that well water radiation attributable to fracking was responsible for the increased Pennsylvania infant mortality rates alleged in the study.
The study concludes that “evidence is discussed which supports the contamination of the drinking water by naturally occurring radioactive material, including Radium as a cause of the increased risk.” But the evidence discussed is simply references to previous studies completed by the authors, including John Mangano, who works for the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York City, which has received funding from the Pittsburgh Foundation for another anti-fracking study linking fracking to infant mortality.
That study, by the way, has been discredited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which actually took water samples and concluded,
“There is little potential for additional radiation exposure to the public due to the use of natural gas extracted from geologic formations in Pa.” (page 18)
Further in 2013, Dr. Lynn Anspaugh, a renowned expert in radiation and health at the University of Utah, released a report, which also engaged in direct sampling from the Marcellus Shale and concluded,
“The sample analyses clearly show that the radon levels in the natural gas are low and will cause no significant health risk.”
And a report by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) found that radon levels in Marcellus gas are “essentially equal to background values” or what’s already naturally occurring, and that the radon levels “pose no threat to public health or the environment.” In fact, in 2015 when Johns Hopkins University released a study attempting to link fracking with high levels of radon the data set they used actually showed the highest levels that occurred in the state were in counties with no Marcellus development.
In other words, the risks of exposure to radiation from Marcellus gas aren’t considered a health risk in Pennsylvania.
Fact: Authors do not look at any other potential causes of EIM
While the authors do acknowledge that on an individual county level “the small numbers do not permit any statistical certainty for each county on its own,” they still make the jump that fracking is the cause for any changes in early infant mortality (EIM). And they do so without any discussion on important factors that impact infant health, such as genetics or whether the mother used drugs or alcohol.
This has been an issue in other studies that try to link fracking to pregnancy or newborn related issues. For instance, Dr. Gilbert Ross, senior director of medicine and public health at the American Council on Science and Health conducted an interview on the Johns Hopkins study on premature births in 2015 where he explained,
“There is no possible way this retrospective study could have accounted for key issues, such as genetic factors, history of prior pregnancy issues, [or] drug or alcohol use in the parents, all of which have a large influence on birth weights and the duration of pregnancy,” Ross said.
“Realistically, there is no way hydraulic fracturing could have had an impact on pregnancy outcomes,” said Ross. “Fracking occurs two miles below the surface, and the Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing widespread water contamination. There is no plausible mechanism to explain how pregnant women might have been exposed to anything related to fracking to cause attenuated gestation duration. Indeed, the authors didn’t measure any levels of possible toxicant exposure,” said Ross. “How could they, of course, in a retrospective analysis such as this?” (emphasis added)
While his comments were directed at the causes of premature birth, the issues he mentioned – genetic factors, history of pregnancy issues, drug and alcohol use – all can impact the growth of the infant and its health in its first 28 days of life. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) explains that the most common causes of early infant mortality – in this case defined as death before a child’s first birthday – are:
- Low weight at birth
- Birth defects
- Pregnancy complications for the mother
- Sudden unexpected infant death and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Accidents (unintentional injuries)
The CDC also offers reasons for why each of these might come about, listing factors that other studies of fracking and health have been criticized for leaving out. For example, the CDC says birth defects can be the result of:
- Smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking certain “street” drugs during pregnancy.
- Having certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy.
- Taking certain medications, such as isotretinoin (a drug used to treat severe acne).
- Having someone in your family with a birth defect. To learn more about your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, you can talk with a clinical geneticist or a genetic counselor.
- Being an older mother, typically over the age of 34 years.
None of these were discussed as possible contributing factors to increased EIM rates. Further, the authors don’t even discuss whether the mothers or infants had any more association to well water and gas wells other than simply living in a county where there is some shale development. In fact, they used 2011 Marcellus well data for a study conducted from 2010 to 2003, giving the appearance of there being more wells in each county than there actually were at the time of the study.
This study is littered with issues from beginning to end — most notably a complete disregard for the scientific process.
The authors failed to take water samples in the study area. Nowhere in this study do the authors discuss any potential factors contributing to EIM other than radium in the water from the fracking process — a theory that has been thoroughly debunked. There’s also no discussion of proximity to Marcellus wells, family history or whether or not the mothers used drugs or alcohol while pregnant.
All told, this is a glaring example of researchers using an unfounded and inflammatory topline finding in hopes of garnering media attention in order to advance an anti-fracking agenda. But it looks like the media has caught on to this “fake science” made possible by an open-access “pay to play” journals such as SCIRP.