Toxicologist the Latest to Highlight Shortcomings of Research Linking Fracking to Health Issues
“Keep It In the Ground” activists continue to focus on quantity rather than quality when it comes to research linking shale development to alleged public health impacts. As EID has noted before, a vast majority of the studies cited by activists not only lack measurement and exposure data needed to establish causal links – many of the purported links found are shaky at best. And as CBS4 Denver recently reported, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) officials have noted that the collection of research being used to justify passage of Proposition 112 – an anti-fracking measure that would effectively ban new oil and gas development in the state – is “hypothetical and not scientific and compiled by groups with an anti-fracking bias.”
All the while, far more conclusive studies based on actual measurements show shale development is protective of public health. And you don’t have to take our word for it, as the list of third-party experts attesting to this fact continues to grow.
Most recently, Gradient toxicologist Christopher Long highlighted the many shortcomings and limitations of a lion’s share of fracking health studies at last month’s Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh. Long, who is the Principal Scientist for the renowned environmental risk research firm – and is described in his bio as “an expert in the area of exposure and risk assessment, with particular expertise in indoor and outdoor air pollution, inhalation toxicology, air pollution epidemiology, air sampling and measurement, and air modeling” – presented a summary of 20 prominent shale-focused epidemiological health studies, as well as his own review of current air quality studies focused on oil and natural gas development.
The Dominion Post reported that Long’s presentation conveyed that shale-focused epidemiological health research is “inconclusive,” either showing no link at all between fracking and public health impacts, or links in which no causal connection could be established due to numerous methodological shortcomings,
“Two of five low birth weight studies, he said, showed possible linkage. One of five showed possible linkage to premature births.
“But study limitations have to be considered, he said. For instance researchers substituted distance from well pads and number of well pads – called exposure surrogates – for actual exposure data. These assumptions, though, don’t account for terrain, wind and weather. ‘Does this truly represent exposure?’
“They also don’t account for such things as socioeconomic status, he said, or bias of the researchers who sometimes drew unsupportable conclusions from their data.”
Long’s assessment echoes similar conclusions drawn by the CDPHE and Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank Resources for the Future (RFF) following their respective recent reviews of prominent shale-related health research.
CDPHE scientists recently reviewed 12 relevant epidemiological studies covering 27 different health effects in communities near oil and gas operations and found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.”
CDPHE ranked the majority of recent studies purporting to find a link between oil and natural gas activity and adverse health effects as “low quality, primarily due to limitations of the study designs that make it difficult to establish clear links between exposures to substances emitted directly from oil and gas and the outcomes evaluated.” CDPHE’s review found that “[s]tudies of populations living near oil and gas operations provide limited evidence of the possibility for harmful health effects.”
CDPHE’s analysis also noted that an individual’s total exposure “may reflect multiple substances from both oil and gas and non-oil and gas sources from indoor and outdoor environments. For example, VOCs [volatile organic compounds] can be emitted from a variety of sources including oil and gas, other industrial operations, vehicle traffic and everyday consumer products such as nail polish, detergents, sealants, aerosol antiperspirants and deodorants.”
RFF recently noted in a health-focused hydraulic fracturing issues brief that the current body of research on fracking and public health fails to measure burdens, concentrations and exposure that would establish a causal connection between shale development activities and health impacts. The most prominent examples (each which still garnered mainstream media coverage) are featured in the following EID graphic.
RFF specifically concludes:
“No study has identified the mechanism for these health impacts, and only one study reviewed was able to assess each link in the causal chain…
“Despite the real concerns over health risks of living near shale development, researchers have not identified the pathway such as air emissions, water contamination, psychological stress, or any other cause —through which an individual’s health may be a detected.” (emphasis added)
Similar to CDPHE, RFF last year reviewed 32 of the more prominent shale-focused studies on birth outcomes, cancers, asthma, and other health effects, including migraines and hospitalization.
Cumulatively, RFF concluded that none of those major categories of studies were “high quality,” while studies on birth defects, hospitalizations and multiple symptoms were cumulatively deemed to be of “low quality.”
It is important to understand that a vast majority of research drawing links between fracking and health issues have been epidemiological studies. Epidemiological studies are inherently limited in that they are not based on actual measurements and can only determine statistical correlations rather than proof of causation. Notably, such studies have been employed prominently since a 2012 activist memo was released detailing a strategy to use scientific research to drive opposition to fracking and expand regulations. Not shockingly, a vast majority of the studies featured in the Physicians for Social Responsibility/Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY) referenced earlier that CDPHE notes is “hypothetical and not scientific and compiled by groups with an anti-fracking bias,” according to CBS4, happen to fit this description.
In contrast, studies based on actual air measurements have been far less prevalent, even though such studies can most effectively determine potential health risks from close proximity to oil and gas development. CDPHE officials recently emphasized that, “Air monitoring around those oil and gas sites really is the best approach” to determine health risks from development.
Even more notably, an overwhelming majority of studies based on actual measurements – both water and air – find shale development is protective of public health. As the Dominion Post reported, Long noted during his Shale Insight presentation that:
“The air study data to date, he said, shows little difference between well pad sites and their surrounding areas and other areas without well pads. Levels of toxic pollutants such as benzene and toluene vary hourly and appear to be no higher than non-fracking areas.”
Indeed, no fewer than 17 recent reports – including at least five peer-reviewed studies – find oil and natural gas development site emissions are protective of public health. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these studies is a 2017 CDPHE report that analyzed more than 10,000 air samples in the areas of the state where “substantial” oil and natural gas operations occurred and found that levels of emissions were “safe,” even for sensitive populations. That report concluded:
“Based on currently available air monitoring data, the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] (sic) oil and gas operations,” with the CDPHE authors concluding that “[a]t this time, results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”
Similarly, more than two-dozen studies show that fracking does not pose a major threat to groundwater. That list includes 17 peer-reviewed studies that examined water samples from at least 14,570 water wells.
“Link” = No Real Evidence
To date, the collective research tying shale development to adverse health outcomes has merely drawn links rather than produced causal evidence. And as Forbes contributor Michael Lynch recently noted,
“Generally, the term ‘linked’ is used to mean that there is no hard evidence, just a circumstantial relationship, and it should be taken as no more than vaguely interesting.”
As energy lawyer Kathy Condo noted during the Shale Insight Conference, though these studies have generated scary headlines and influenced the court of public opinion, they mean little in a court of law. As the Dominion Post reported,
“She said that in a courtroom, opinions have to be back up by facts. ‘What I’m finding is that when evidence must be presented, data must be presented … the data to back up opinions is not there.’”
And fortunately, major media outlets such as the Denver Post are starting to recognize that such flawed studies are not appropriate to drive potentially economically devastating policy initiatives such as Prop 112:
“[W]e haven’t seen evidence that oil and gas activity is the kind of unmitigated threat to health and safety that would merit a ban.”
To be clear, the issue of fracking and potential health impacts is a serious one that deserves thorough debate. That said, research used by “Keep It In the Ground” activists in an effort to achieve their ultimate goal — banning fracking across the country — deserves serious scrutiny as well.