Researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a report today arguing that high levels of radon found in Pennsylvania homes can be linked to hydraulic fracturing. But not only do they lack the science to back up their claims, their own data actually debunk the conclusions of their report. Further, their claims hinge on simply ignoring a number of well-known facts about radon in Pennsylvania.
Here are the four important things to know about this report:
Fact #1: Highest concentrations of radon were in areas with no shale development
In the press release for the report, the lead researcher, Brian Schwartz, claims, “One plausible explanation for elevated radon levels in people’s homes is the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years,” yet the report explains,
“Basement radon concentrations fluctuated between 1987-2003, but began an upward trend from 2004-2012 in all county categories (p < 0.001), higher levels in counties with ≥100 drilled wells vs. counties with none, and with highest levels in the Reading Prong.” (page 2)
“We identified several predictors of indoor radiation concentrations in Pennsylvania, a state with historically high levels. Water source, building type, test type, test duration, season, weather, county, and geologic unit were associated with indoor radon concentration. When data was aggregated to county categories, on average, Reading Prong counties had the highest indoor radon concentrations.” (page 16; emphasis added)
The counties in Reading Prong have absolutely no wells—not even conventional. The report also claims,
“We observed fluctuating radon concentrations throughout the study period; low Marcellus activity counties consistently had lower radon than both high and no Marcellus activity counties, before and after drilling began.” (page 16; emphasis added)
If Marcellus development were to blame for radon levels, wouldn’t areas with development have higher radon levels than areas with no development? In other words, their own data debunk their claim that higher readings of radon are in areas with oil and gas development.
Fact #2: Direct sampling has found radon not linked to fracking
The Johns Hopkins researchers did not take any direct samples. As they admit in the study, they “did not perform any environmental radon measurements specifically directed at evaluating Marcellus or well water hypotheses.” Instead they simply gathered “first floor and basement indoor radon results reported to the PADEP between 1987-2013” and then speculated that the higher levels must be due to fracking.
Compare that to a report by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which engaged in direct sampling 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)
As if that’s not enough, the DEP study also determined:
- “There is little or limited potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public from the development, completion, production, transmission, processing, storage, and end use of natural gas.”
- “There is little potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public at facilities that treat O&G wastes.”
- “There is little potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public from landfills receiving waste from the O&G industry.”
- “While limited potential was found for radiation exposure to recreationists using roads treated with brine from conventional natural gas wells, further study of radiological environmental impacts from the use of brine from the O&G industry for dust suppression and road stabilization should be conducted.”
Further, the Pennsylvania DEP isn’t the only one to debunk claims on radon and natural gas. 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. The report concluded,
“The sample analyses clearly show that the radon levels in the natural gas are low and will cause no significant health risk.”
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 addition, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also rejected the idea that Marcellus Shale natural gas would pose radon problems.
Fact #3: Pennsylvania has had levels of naturally occurring radon long before shale development
Elevated levels of radon have been a problem in Pennsylvania long before shale development ever occurred. In fact, StateImpact quoted Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, who “questioned the study’s assertion that higher radon levels could be traced to the start of the fracking boom.” As Steward explains,
“Since the study reported that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher radon concentration than those using municipal systems averaged over the whole study period – which began more than a decade before Pennsylvania’s fracking boom – it does not necessarily indicate a link between fracking and radon, Stewart said. “These differences in the data were observed going back to the 1980s, long before the expansion of unconventional extraction,” he said.” (emphasis added)
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has long documented the high levels of radon found in homes in the state. Just to give a couple of the many examples: back in 2005, several years before a shale well was drilled in Pennsylvania, the Secretary of the DEP, Secretary Kathleen McGinty, urged all Pennsylvanians to test their homes for radon, citing the high risk of exposure. As its press released stated,
“Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the decay of uranium in the soil. It enters homes through cracks in basements and foundations. DEP estimates as many as 40 percent of Pennsylvania homes statewide have radon levels greater than the EPA guidelines of 4 pico curies per liter.” (emphasis added)
In January of 2006, then Governor Edward Rendell announced new steps to help protect Pennsylvanians from radon in their homes. In January of 2008, the Pennsylvania DEP tested the Lock Haven Building in Clinton County and found “elevated radon levels in a building that also houses students of the nearby state university.”
The Pennsylvania DEP also explains in detail how radon can seep into homes through the soil:
“Radon is a radioactive gas. It comes from the natural decay of uranium that is found in nearly all soils. It typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Your home traps radon inside, where it can build up. Any home may have a radon problem. This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements. Radon from soil gas is the main cause of radon problems.” (emphasis added)
Fact #4: Researchers admit key limitations
The researchers explain,
“Our analysis had several limitations. We had no information on radon-resistant construction, construction year, types of remediation completed, type of heating and cooking systems, quantity of natural gas and water used in the building, degree of sealing of the building for energy efficiency, soil type near the building, wind speed and direction, and individual SES. This missing data makes attributing increased radon levels to a particular source difficult. For instance, it is possible that the observed upward trend from 2004-2012 was simply the result of buildings being more tightly sealed.” (page 18; emphasis added)
In short, the authors don’t know what caused the increase in radon and it could just as easily have been the fact that buildings have been more tightly sealed. Also telling, the authors admit:
“We do not know whether a radon professional or homeowner performed each radon test… Worry about levels could introduce a form of selection bias sometimes observed in universal screening programs in which those with higher radon levels would be more likely to test first, which would account for the temporal trends up to 2005…Additionally this analysis should be considered exploratory since we did not perform any environmental radon measurements specifically directed at evaluating Marcellus or well water hypotheses.” (page 19; emphasis added)
In other words, the authors want to remind readers to look at this as an exploratory analysis because they were missing a few key items to make their claims. But that didn’t stop them from blaming fracking as if they did. On that point, it’s worth noting that the lead researcher, Brian Schwartz, is a fellow of the anti-oil and gas Post Carbon Institute and also works closely with the Skytruth.org, a group that is against hydraulic fracturing and indeed all industrial activity.
To sum up, the researchers’ own data debunks their claims that higher levels of radon correlate with hydraulic fracturing. They gloss over the fact that Pennsylvania has long had naturally occurring concentrations of radon, and simply blame fracking. Further, study after study, including a major study from the Pennsylvania DEP, has found no credible link between oil and gas development and radon exposure. Considering all these facts, it looks like the researchers were more interested in gleaning anti-fracking headlines than producing credible science.