Misleading NPR Fracking Chemicals Story Lacks Context on Dose and Exposure

A recent NPR MarketPlace story claims “new” documents obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are a smoking gun against the oil and gas industry, proving chemical additives used in fracking fluid have harmed public health. From the MarketPlace story,

“The EPA approves new chemicals, and it turns out the agency greenlit more than 40 drilling and fracking chemicals with known risks from 2003 to 2014.”

“A new set of documents, obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency by the Partnership for Policy Integrity and shared with Marketplace, shows that the agency has previously undisclosed health concerns that some fracking chemicals might cause things like liver poisoning and tumors.”

But both the story and the 2016 report it’s based on leave out some pretty critical information on actual concentrations of these chemicals in fracking fluid and public exposure to the chemicals. In other words, there is zero context explaining that a substance’s mere existence does not mean it is causing harm.

Before getting into why that’s essential information to include in any honest discussion on the topic, it’s important to have a little background that MarketPlace failed to include on both the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PPI) report the “new” EPA documents were pulled from, and the report’s lead researcher, Dusty Horwitt, who is quoted in the story. The PPI report, titled “Toxic Secrets,” was funded by a trio of foundations – Heinz Endowments, Park Foundation and Tides Foundation – that have collectively funded more anti-fracking initiatives and research than EID could possible list. Notably, MarketPlace also received over $2 million to create a program on “global sustainability and the economy” from the Tides Foundation.

Horwitt’s background leaves little wiggle room for debating his viewpoints on fracking. He’s been discussing oil and gas for years as a representative for anti-fracking groups like the Environmental Working Group and Earthworks – who actually declared a “war on fracking” – before conducting this research for PPI.

Exposure and Dose Context Is Critical

EID detailed the multitude of flaws and deliberate inaccuracies of the PPI report when it was released last year – much of which is reiterated in this recent MarketPlace story. But there’s one point in particular that’s worth repeating: exposure and dose context is critical.

This article’s headline, “Documents Show Undisclosed EPA Health Concerns on Fracking Chemicals,” gives readers the impression that there are these secret chemicals being used in the fracking process and that those chemicals are causing health issues. But that’s not the case.

First, if someone wants to know what additives have been used to hydraulically fracture nearby wells, FracFocus.org has publicly available details on over 127,000 wells. Fracking fluid compositions, while not all exactly the same, are typically pretty similar: roughly 95 percent water, four percent sand and one percent chemical additives.

The EPA has detailed information on those chemicals, and as the above EID infographic shows, most of them can be found in common household items like laundry detergent.

Even more importantly, just because a chemical is present in something doesn’t mean that nearby residents are being exposed to it or exposed to it at levels that cause health concerns. Illinois-based environmental engineer Gerald Quindry recently shared the guidelines to determine if a chemical poses a concern due to toxicity:

  1. The chemical has to be present.
  2. The chemical has to be toxic in the form it is present.
  3. The concentration has to be high enough to cause harm.
  4. There has to be an exposure pathway to humans or environmental receptors.

The story also claims that “in Colorado, the closer you live to a well, the higher your cancer risk.” But that’s in direct contradiction to a landmark health assessment by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) that concluded, “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations,” and that “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”

This conclusion was based largely on an honest scientific assessment of dose and exposure levels.

CDPHE’s head of environmental epidemiology Dr. Mike Van Dyke explained that the level of exposure is key, especially considering how many of the substances examined in the assessment are also emitted by sources other than oil and natural gas development – including vehicle traffic and consumer products such as nail polish, detergents, sealants, aerosol antiperspirants and deodorants. He stated,

“Each can be a health concern at some level of exposure.”

For folks who remain concerned about the very existence of certain substances, Dr. Van Dyke offered the example of saccharin to illustrate why the level of exposure is critical. Saccharin is an artificial sweetener that prompted a health scare in the 1980s when researchers discovered that it caused bladder tumors in laboratory animals. He explained that saccharin was later removed from the carcinogen list altogether after researchers later found that humans would have to consume the equivalent of a hundred cans of Diet Coke in a single day in order to experience those same health effects, adding “and, I mean, I don’t know anyone who drinks quite that much Diet Coke.” Dr. Van Dyke concluded,

“What’s important in terms of exposure to these hazardous substances is how much you’re exposed to.”

CDPHE’s assessment was based on air sampling, but with more than 25 studies demonstrating that fracking does not pose a major risk of groundwater pollution, the science supports that there has not been widespread exposure to chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process via water pathways, either.

None of this is explained in the MarketPlace story or Horwitt’s report. And yet, it is such a critical element in understanding the health risks associated with constituents that may or may not even be present on a well pad, let alone reaching nearby properties at levels that would be cause for concern.

Birds of a Feather?

MarketPlace reports that, “Pennsylvania residents alone filed 9,000 complaints about drilling pollution and well problems from 2004 to 2016. That’s one complaint for every well drilled.” But in reality, the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has explained that only a fraction of those (284) of those 9,000 complaints were found to even be related to oil and gas.

This claim of “9,000 complaints about drilling pollution and well problems from 2004 to 2016” comes from a report by the vehemently anti-fracking activist blog Public Herald, which is funded by the anti-fracking Heinz Endowments and The 11th Hour Project.  The Public Herald report and its researchers have such credibility issues that at the time of its publication, MarketPlace’s fellow NPR station, StateImpact PA – which also happens to be funded by the Heinz Endowment – was the only outlet to cover it.

Not only was the entire Public Herald report written, reviewed and reported on in an echo chamber funded by Heinz, but as EID detailed in the post on the first part of this series, the Heinz Endowments (along with the Park Foundation and Tides Foundation) also funded the research that MarketPlace based its first story of this series.

This MarketPlace story is part of a series – stay tuned to EID for a debunk of the second story in the series.

Comments

  1. Arbo Doughty says:

    okay…sure…4% is a relatively small number. But let’s assume a typically fracked well uses 1 million gallons of fluid/cocktail of water, sand and chemicals. Simple math says that’s 4,000 gallons of that 1 million is a cocktail of chemicals. Industry studies generally suggest that about 50-60% is recoverable, with 70% of that re-injectionable. So, based on that at least 1,000 gallons on any given well remains downhole. Let’s assume for arguments sake, the operator has 27 wells on a single pad using an H&P rig or something similar. Suddenly, that 1,000 gallons is now 27,000 gallons remaining downhole…for just one well pad. Is this 27,000 gallons static…that is, doesn’t move into groundwater? It could…of course…depends on the formation, right? The point is: “4%” may seem like a small amount, but it is a meaningless number because those chemicals are becoming increasingly concentrated; and at certain concentrations are indeed toxic to life.

    And while you cite the CDHPE study as “landmark” and Dr. Van Dyke’s statements as definitive, you obfuscate because you don’t understand the study… the CDHPE study used air samples. Air emissions studies are not groundwater/drinking water studies. Period.

    • Seth Whitehead says:

      The typical fracking fluid breakdown is: 95 percent water, 4 percent sand and 1 percent chemical additives.

      There are more than two dozen groundwater studies based on water well samples. Full list here:

      This list includes a study conducted this year by USGS and a Duke University study (partially funded by the Natural Resources Defense Council).

      Direct quote from the latter NRDC-funded study: “Based on consistent evidence from comprehensive testing, we found no indication of groundwater contamination over the three-year course of our study.”

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