Yale Health Study Misses the Mark on Fracking

A new study, authored by researchers from Yale, the University of Washington, and Colorado State University, concludes that people in Washington County, Pa., who live within a kilometer of oil and gas wells suffer from more respiratory and skin conditions than those who live farther away.  The researchers hypothesize that this is because oil and gas wells could be impacting private water wells and air quality.

Given the amount of research from regulatory agencies that has affirmed the safety of shale development, this latest study appears to be a bit of an anomaly. And after a deeper dive into the study’s findings and methodologies, we begin to see why.

Fact#1: No water or air quality impacts in Washington County, PA

The report claims,

“There are several potential explanations for the finding of increased skin conditions among inhabitants living near gas wells. One is that natural gas extraction wells could have caused contamination of well water through breaks in the gas well casing or other underground communication between ground water supplies and fracking activities.” (p. 17)

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) just released a list of instances where drinking water supplies may have been affected throughout the state, and not one of those instances occurred in Washington County during the time period when the survey was conducted (2011-2012).  In fact, there were only two cases the DEP identified – one in 2008, outside the study area and one in 2014, after the survey was completed.

Further, in what the AP called a “landmark federal study” last year, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy injected tracers into fracking fluid in wells in Greene County in Southwest Pennsylvania to determine if contaminants from hydraulic fracturing were migrating into groundwater.  As the Associated Press reported, the researchers found “no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site.”

With that possibility significantly diminished, the researchers suggested health impacts could be coming from the air:

“A second possible explanation for the skin symptoms could be exposure to air pollutants including volatile organic compounds, particulates, and ozone from upwind sources, such asflaring of gas wells (McKenzie et al. 2012) and exhaust from vehicles and heavy machinery.” (p. 17)

The Pennsylvania DEP has conducted extensive air monitoring in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Washington County is located, and this was its conclusion: “Sampling for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, did not detect levels above National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.”  The DEP also previously studied wells northeast Pennsylvania, and the agency “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPH) have conducted air monitoring near well sites as well and found no credible risk to public health.

The upshot? The researchers’ “potential” explanations for why oil and gas development could be the culprit are simply not supported by well-documented investigations.

Fact #2: No hard evidence linking shale development to symptoms

Interestingly, the researchers “suggest” that the symptoms identified are due to oil and gas activity.  This is most apparent when they surmise that health impacts could be linked to contamination of the water or air from hydraulic fracturing, and even argue that “stress or anxiety” due to living near oil and gas wells could be a factor. In doing so, they also dismiss any other factors, including the possibility of allergens or exposure to household pets – which are common causes of respiratory or skin problems – because, as the researchers state, “We did not see a correlation between skin conditions and either the presence of an animal in the house hold or agricultural occupation, making this association less likely.”

However, because the researchers don’t actually have any scientific evidence to back up the connection to drilling that they’re asserting, they have been forced to walk back the conclusion they hinted at in the actual study.  As the New Haven Register reported,

“The study does not claim that the wells cause the health problems, which requires further investigation to determine.

It’s more of an association than a causation,’ Rabinowitz said. ‘We want to make sure people know it’s a preliminary study. … To me it strongly indicates the need to further investigate the situation and not ignore it.’”

If the goal was to generate the desired headline, while only later admitting that they don’t actually have the scientific evidence to back up what the predictable headline says, then this was a job well done.

Fact #3: Utilized anti-fracking group, which paid families to participate 

The researchers have a prominent spot in their acknowledgements for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a group well known for its criticism of and opposition to hydraulic fracturing.  For example, the Project has put out a number of reports maligning shale development, and also recently teamed up with anti-affordable energy groups in North Carolina to produce anti-fracking campaign ads.  One of these ads features a nurse from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project – although her affiliation isn’t disclosed.

On page two, the researchers state that they would like to “thank the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project for assistance with the community survey.”  On page nine they say the survey “was pre-tested with focus groups in the study area in collaboration with a community based group.”  And, on page 10, they explain that “eligible households were offered a small cash stipend for participation.”

In other words, the data collection process was at least partially outsourced it to an activist group, whose sole purpose is to stop oil and gas development, which paid people to give them information.

The report itself was funded by the Heinz Foundation and Claneil Foundation, which have given millions of dollars to anti-fracking groups like PennEnvironment and activist Anthony Ingraffea’s Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSEHE).  The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has also received millions in Heinz and Claneil money.

Fact #4: Reads like a litany of anti-fracking reports

Finally, the report relies on a number of anti-fracking studies that have been thoroughly debunked, or have been found to have major flaws in their methodologies.

Chief among these studies is a report led by Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health.  As many people now know, McKenzie and her fellow researchers used out-of-date emission data and inflated exposure times by 900 percent in order to come to the conclusion of high risk. In response to concern about air quality, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) installed air quality monitors at well sites.  Using data from these monitors, CDPHE concluded that “[t]he concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”

The researchers in this latest study also state that their “findings are consistent” with a study from Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, which, as EID has noted on numerous occasions, is not a scientific study.  Even the researchers admitted as much, explaining about their own report:  “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study.” Dr. Ian Rae, a co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the U.N. Environment Programme, expounded on this major flaw: “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.”

It’s odd that the authors of this new study would hitch their findings to a work that was clearly not a work of careful science, but given the myriad flaws and activist coordination, it may just be a case of refreshing honesty.

Conclusion

To sum up, this report is the result of an activist group partnering with a number of academics who are funded by anti-fracking foundations, who then paid individuals to give complete surveys on health symptoms. The questionable structure aside, the lack of any pre-drilling information – to which these “findings” could be compared – means there is absolutely no hard evidence to tie the symptoms identified to oil and gas development. The call for additional research is welcome news, and hopefully the next study on this subject will learn from the plethora of mistakes that defined its predecessor.

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  1. […] the Yale health study – it’s contradicted by evidence that’s plain to see, while it presents nothing in the way of causal evidence to support its speculation. It’s junk science that gets a pass because it has the Yale name on it. The authors have […]

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  5. […] is because oil and gas wells could be impacting private water wells and air quality.  But as EID pointed out when the report was published, studies by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection […]

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