A new study authored by a group of researchers who have tried desperately to stoke fears that shale development can lead to dangerous exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) offers up more of the familiar exaggerations and myths that have long been debunked.
The study focuses exclusively on a surface water samples taken from a stream near a wastewater disposal site in West Virginia and trumpets:
“EDC activity downstream was above levels known to result in adverse health effects… Compared to reference water extracts upstream and distal to the disposal well, samples collected adjacent and downstream exhibited considerably higher antagonist activity for the estrogen, androgen, progesterone, glucocorticoid and thyroid hormone receptors.”
But a closer look at the study reveals that the researchers found exactly zero samples in which toxicity was high enough to cause harm to humans – and that’s just the beginning of a number of problems with the report. Here are the facts:
Fact #1: The EDCs detected in water samples would only be considered dangerous if they were 40 times the concentration levels collected
The report claims it found increased endocrine disruption activity downstream from the wastewater disposal well when compared to upstream samples and samples taken from a nearby background stream with no potential oil and gas-related inputs. But the authors concede EDC concentrations would have to be 40 times what the researchers found for there to be a risk to humans:
“The most impacted samples, Sites 7 and 3, also exhibited toxicity in the mammalian cell culture system at the 40X concentration, but not at the 4X concentration that we used to measure EDC activity.”
“Sites 7 and 3 both exhibited moderately high toxicity (>60% inhibition of betagalactosidase production) at the 40X test concentration (Figure 4). None of the 4X concentrations of these samples exhibited significant toxicity.”
The researchers even acknowledge one chemical detected would only be harmful if it were 100 times the concentration in which they found:
“Detected at Site 3, 2-(2-butoxyethoxy)-ethanol (diethylene glycol methyl ether) has been tested by our lab previously and exhibited antagonistic activities for ER, AR, and GR (Kassotis et al., 2015b), though only at concentrations approximately 100-times above the 0.54 μg/L in the water at this site.”
Furthermore, agonist levels detected were below levels known to cause health problems, according to the report. An agonist is defined a chemical that binds to a receptor and activates the receptor to produce a biological response. Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. From the report:
“Impacted sites largely contained minimal agonist activity, and generally occurred below levels known to impact aquatic life. Agonist activities in water sample extracts from reference sites were also below those known to cause adverse health effects in aquatic organisms, to the best of our knowledge.”
This isn’t the first time a report authored by these same researchers – specifically Christopher Kassotis of Duke University and Susan Nagel of the University of Missouri – has included misleading information about the concentration of chemicals.
Similarly, the team released a study a few months ago in which they made a concoction of 24 chemicals that are known to cause health problems only if consumed in extremely high doses and put them into the mice’s water in extremely high doses. Then they proceeded to argue that because these chemicals are used in fracking, this poses harm to humans. It’s well known that fracking fluid is typically 99.5 percent water and sand. According to Illinois based environmental engineer Gerald Quindry, there are four requirements for a chemical to be of concern due to toxicity, one being that the concentration has to be high enough to cause harm and another being that people actually have to be exposed to these high concentrations of chemicals. Such is not the case the team’s mouse sperm study or this study.
Kassotis even admitted, it’s “unlikely people would ever be exposed to doses quite as high.”
Fact #2: Fails to provide context on EDCs, which are found in numerous products we use every day
Kassotis and Nagel’s own prior analysis shows that EDCs are found in just about everything we use on a day-to-day basis, including dyes, perfumes, plastics, personal care products, detergents and cleaning agents. 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.”
And they are used in the latter products in often much higher concentrations than they are in fracking fluid. This is another example as to why concentration levels are far more relevant than merely detecting EDCs.
It is also worth noting that the report acknowledges that the disposal well studied also disposes of waste from other industries, according to the researchers, “… the hormonal activity profile exhibited may be in part to other sources. As such, caution should be taken in the extrapolation of these results to unconventional oil and gas activity specifically.”
Several chemicals used in agricultural activities could contain EDCs, as the Natural Resources Defence Council (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.”
Fact #3: Exaggerates number of chemicals used in a typical frack job – yet again
This is just the latest study in which these researchers have pushed anti-fracking talking point that more chemicals are used in frack jobs than actually are:
“While less than fifty chemicals are typically used for the hydraulic fracturing of a single well, there are approximately 1,000 different chemicals used by industry across the US (US EPA, 2015; Waxman et al., 2011); of these, more than 100 are known or suspected EDCs (Colborn et al., 2011; Kassotis et al., 2014; Waxman et al., 2011).”
Though the rhetoric is actually toned down a bit from previous studies conducted by Kassotis and Nagel, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completely debunks them on the assumption that as many as 50 chemicals are used in a single frack job, noting that the “median number of additive ingredients per disclosure for the entire dataset was 14.”
EPA also found the following, illustrating what a small concentration of fracking fluid is actually made up of chemicals:
“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.”
Though a bit boring and far less sinister than activists would like the public to believe, fracking fluid is — quite simply — mostly water and sand.
Fact #4: Authors have close ties to anti-fracking groups
As EID has noted many times, one of the authors of the report, Susan Nagel, has not exactly kept her anti-fracking bias under the radar. In addition to tweeting at the most prominent anti-fracking celebrities asking them to fund her work, she also recently appeared alongside Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking (who, according to that group, “is a central voice in the fight against fracking”) for an interview proclaiming the “dangers” of fracking. She also publicly endorsed Gasland in a talk entitled “What the Frack?” in which she called Josh Fox’s completely debunked films “educational” because they contain “a lot of good information” and are only “a little sensational.”
Fact #5: Study focuses exclusively on an apparent spill site
Similar to what this group of researchers has done before, the study also appears to have focused on a site in which a spill has occurred:
“As such, the goals of this study were to characterize the endocrine disrupting activities of water samples collected from a site where the chemical analyses indicated release of UOG wastewater had occurred and to ascertain potential health risks.”
Spills are obviously bad, so it’s not all that surprising that the researchers found some environmental impacts at this site. But by focusing on a problem area that is much more the exception than the rule, the researchers fail to provide any insight on increasing knowledge about the risks of responsible development. Yet even if this site was the site of a spill (which isn’t entirely clear) their research still indicates that the samples were well below thresholds that would be of concern for public health.
As stated earlier, the authors of this study have tried desperately — and ineffectively — in the past to link fracking to dangerous exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Their usual tactics are employed again in this study, but they are ineffective again, due in large part to the fact that they find no evidence to link the EDCs to fracking, and the levels of EDCs detected would have to be 40 times greater to pose any serious threat to humans. Their tactics may generate some alarmist headlines, but a close look at their report shows their arguments are shaky at best.