A researcher who appealed to Josh Fox and Yoko Ono for funding after her work was rejected by the National Institutes of Health is back with a new paper claiming that shale development has the “potential for environmental release of a complex mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that could potentially harm human development and reproduction.”
The paper conducted by Susan Nagel and her colleagues at the University of Missouri also claims that hydraulic fracturing uses “approximately 1,000 chemicals used throughout the process” citing a 2015 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But what the researchers leave out is the fact that EPA also found “median number of additive ingredients per disclosure for the entire dataset was 14.” In other words, each frack job only uses approximately 14 chemicals, not 1,000. Further, the EPA also found
“Among the entire data set, the sum of the maximum hydraulic fracturing fluid concentration for all additive ingredients reported in a disclosure was less than 1% by mass in approximately 80% of disclosures, and the median maximum hydraulic fracturing fluid concentration was 0.43% by mass.”
The EPA’s findings directly contradict the claims of the Nagel team and other anti-fracking groups that have tried to use numbers in the hundreds and thousands to scare the public. Never mind the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released the most comprehensive study ever to be done on hydraulic fracturing (taking five years to complete), which found “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
The Nagel team’s “new” study does not evaluate any new data but is essentially a book report of already debunked research, including the Nagel team’s previous report, which claimed to find “greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure.” But Colorado regulators found major problems with that study. The Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment immediately criticized it, noting that it included geological assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid” and that it ignored other sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as septic tanks. CDPHE also stated, “there is no indication in the study that any of the sample sites are currently used for drinking water.” The medical publication Clinical Advisor noted that the study had “a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water.”
While the Nagel team’s newest study states, “The authors declare no competing financial interests” it’s important to note that after Nagel’s research was rejected for a National Institutes of Health grant (because, as she admitted, “it was not good enough to be funded and they suggested more preliminary data”) she then kicked off a “crowdfunding” project focused on asking anti-fracking activists for donations. She made a public appeal for funding to Mark Ruffalo, founder of the anti-drilling group Water Defense; Yoko Ono, founder of Artists Against Fracking; and Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland.
Nagel also gave a fundraising talk – titled “What the Frack?” – at a brewery in downtown Columbia where she praised the Gasland films and suggested that fracking could be harming babies.
Against this important background let’s have a look at some of the highly flawed studies the Nagel team relies on to make their conclusions:
Kassotis et al. (Nagel study)
Front and center in this report is, of course, the Nagel team’s previous study, which suggests hydraulic fracturing will ultimately “disrupt the body’s hormones.” As EID pointed out when the study was first released, one of the main problems is that the researchers had no way of determining where the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) they found were coming from. EDCs can be naturally occurring or man-made, and can come from numerous sources. As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences puts it:
“Endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring compounds or man-made substances that may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body […]These chemicals are found in many of the everyday products we use, including some plastic bottles and containers, liners of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.”
Further, several chemicals used in agricultural activities could contain EDCs, as even the NRDC has pointed out before:
“Chemicals suspected of acting as endocrine disruptors are found in insecticides, herbicides, fumigants and fungicides that are used in agriculture as well as in the home.”
Interestingly, the authors of the report not only agree, but actually state that the EDCs they examined could be coming from sources other than fracking. From the report:
“Both naturally occurring chemicals and synthetic chemicals from other sources could contribute to the activity observed in the water samples collected in this study” (p. 16).
The report goes on to explain that “agricultural and animal care operations could potentially contribute to the measured activity in Garfield County.”
Macey et al. (Global Community Monitor/Bucket Brigade Study)
Macey et al is a study the Nagel team cites to argue “Oil and natural gas production processes also contribute contaminants to the air, creating another potential route of exposure for humans and animals.”
This study was spearheaded by the anti-fracking group, Global Community Monitor (GCM), which has affiliates around the country known as Bucket Brigades – groups of activists that literally collect air samples in buckets lined with plastic bags to suggest that air quality is being impaired by oil and gas development. In the study the researchers allege that “potentially dangerous” air pollution is “frequently present near oil and gas production sites” on the basis of those “bucket” tests.
Not surprisingly, the bucket method has been found to be scientifically unsound by state and federal regulators. For instance, when a local GCM affiliate in Durango, Colo., released a report claiming that students at Sunnyside Elementary School were being exposed to unsafe levels of cancer-causing chemicals, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) said of GCM’s report: “There are some serious technical deficiencies in the study.” Further, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed months of testing at 63 schools in 22 states and found that the air was safe. To confirm EPA’s results, the Durango School District commissioned another study, which concluded that the volatile organic compounds in the air around the school were well below thresholds that would indicate a public health threat. As the district’s chief financial officer explained about the results of that study, “What I’m hearing from the people that did the test is there is no cause for concern at this point in time.”
A recent report by Energy In Depth also found that all six of the authors of Macey et al have ties to anti-fracking groups, including Global Community Monitor; the Center for Environmental Health, which has lobbied to ban oil and gas development in both New York and California; ShaleTest, which works closely with Earthworks and leads a coalition of anti-industry groups known as “Stop the Frack Attack”; and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, an anti-fracking group that played a large role in the “science” behind the ban on fracking in New York.
If that’s not enough, the study was even peer-reviewed by a number of anti-fracking activists, including Sandra Steingraber, who is the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking and is considered “a central voice in the fight against fracking” by her fellow activists. Another peer reviewer was Robert Oswald, who led a local “ban fracking” campaign in his home town, and has even called for local laws to be used in “the war against fracking.” Another reviewer, Jerome Paulson, is also on record supporting a moratorium on all U.S. drilling. But Steingraber, Oswald and Paulson each told Environmental Health, the journal that published the GCM paper: “I declare that I have no competing interests.”
McKenzie et al. (Colorado School of Public Health)
The work of Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) is quoted at length by the Nagel team, especially her report suggesting a link between fracking and birth defects.
But it’s important to remember that the McKenzie researchers were actually disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which provided the state birth records used for the paper. As a disclaimer in the paper itself read:
“CDPHE specifically disclaims responsibility for any analyses, interpretations, or conclusions.”
On the day the paper was made public, the CDPHE followed up with a statement from the department’s executive director (a former Pediatrician of the Year), Dr. Larry Wolk, who said the public could “easily be misled” by the paper. Wolk said health officials “disagree with many of the specific associations” in the study, which rely on “miniscule” statistical differences. The researchers also ignored “many factors” besides natural gas development in their research, he said.
As EID noted when the paper was released, this team of researchers is routinely cited by anti-energy groups, and it even made the script of a celebrity video attacking Gov. John Hickenlooper, which demanded a statewide ban on oil and gas development in Colorado.
As the paper came under closer scrutiny, one of paper’s co-authors was quietly forced to admit:
“It’s certainly not a conclusive study, and it doesn’t demonstrate that pollutants related to shale development have caused birth defects.” (emphasis added)
Bamberger et al.
A 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald of Cornell University purports that chemicals from fracking are harming farm animals. However, they fail to find any conclusive links and were forced to concede, “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study…”
Because they lacked data, the duo used anonymous personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified.
Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a Co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, had this to say about their work:
“It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece … [and the authors] cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.”
Oswald and Bamberger are heavily involved in the “ban fracking” campaign out of Ithaca, N.Y. as well. For example:
“Robert Oswald of the Concerned Citizens of Ulysses, a group that helped collect some 1,000 signatures supporting a fracking ban, said he felt ‘fantastic.’
‘We had to do it,’ he said of the ban.”
They even published book together that claims, “fracking poses a dire threat to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even our food supply.”
Rabonwitz et al.
This study suggests 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. But as EID pointed out when the report was published, studies by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEAP) found that there were no instances of water being contaminated or air quality being impaired by oil and gas development in Washington County in that time period.
Further it’s important to note that the researchers had a prominent spot in their acknowledgements for the anti-fracking group, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPEHP). Specifically, they state that they would like to “thank the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project for assistance with the community survey.” They also explain that the data “was pre-tested with focus groups in the study area in collaboration with a community based group” and that “eligible households were offered a small cash stipend for participation.” In other words, the data collection process was at least partially outsourced to SWPEHP, whose sole purpose is to stop oil and gas development.
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.
Earthworks, ShaleTest and Wolf Eagle Environmental reports
Earthworks, ShaleTest and Wolf Eagle Environmental are anti-fracking groups that involve a number of the same activists, including the former Mayor of DISH, Texas, Calvin Tillman.
Mr. Tillman worked closely with Wolf Eagle Environmental to produce a study that claimed to find high levels of benzene concentrations in DISH, Texas, which they blamed on fracking. But it turned out that Wolf Eagle Environmental took samples over very short periods of time and suggested it was what residents were being exposed to over a long period of time, which is not scientifically sound. As the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) said of their methods, it “was not possible to determine if residents were exposed” to the concentrations that Tillman had claimed.
Of course, Wolf Eagle Environmental is the same firm that helped devise a “strategy” with Parker County, Texas activists to get the EPA involved in a now-infamous water contamination case in 2010. That strategy involved creating a deceptive video to make regulators think a landowner’s water was on fire, which they blamed on nearby shale development. A judge later ruled that the landowner had hooked the hose up to a gas line, not a water line. That’s, of course, the iconic scene in Gasland II.
Tillman also works closely with Earthworks through a group called ShaleTest. In early 2013, Tillman led ShaleTest researchers on another study of the Barnett Shale. Once again, the team claimed to have found alarming levels of benzene, but when the TCEQ came in to investigate, they did not find the risks that ShaleTest alleged. A TCEQ spokesman even called ShaleTest out for its faulty methodology, stating that “it is not scientifically appropriate” to compare short-term results against long-term thresholds, as the ShaleTest study had done.