Study alleges health concerns linked to fracking but it s the opposite of science

By Gil Ross — Jul 21, 2015
Another junk study attempts to scare the public about putative dangers of fracking. Despite the complete lack of scientific rigor involved in its conception and evaluation, the scaremongering got plenty of media attention which is the point of such an inexcusable violation of the scientific method.

Fracked well at sunsetThe latest scare promulgated by the forces of anti-technology and anti-fossil fuel comes disguised as a health warning. Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, led by Reynold Panettieri Jr., its deputy director, studied the potential health effects of living near a fracked drilling site. Their research appeared in the recent edition of the open-access journal, PLOS-One, entitled Unconventional Gas and Oil Drilling Is Associated with Increased Hospital Utilization Rates.

Other authors are affiliated with an entity called the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, while the U of P members are all involved with the Airways Biology Initiative. These authors decided to attempt to link distance from fracking sites to hospitalization rates, by both zip codes and by wells per square kilometer. The data they evaluated was accumulated between 2007 and 2011.

Unsurprisingly, given the data-dredging methodology they chose, they were able to detect an increased rate of cardiovascular hospitalizations based upon number of wells in various zip codes and/or density of drilled wells. The authors concluded: if a zip code went from having zero wells to having greater than 0.79 wells/km2 (79 wells for each 100 km2), we would expect cardiology inpatient prevalence rates to increase by 27% for that zip code.

What s wrong with this study? What s right with it would be a much easier query to answer. Their approach/methodology would be an excellent teaching tool in Epi 101 for the wrong way to attempt to find an actual causal link between some environmental exposure and a health outcome. The data-dredging method they elected was chosen with their desired outcome in mind first, and a search for the truth last. Using areas the size of zip codes to detect an input leading to a health effect is nonsense to start with. The increased hospitalization rate for cardiovascular diagnoses is laughably broad, and to the extent the 27 percent expected increase has any validity (it doesn t), it does not rise to a level of concern in such an observational evaluation. Further, this stat could be easily attributed to the increase in population in the region, given the parallel increase in fracking and fracking-related industry and economic activities that occurred over that period of time.

If these authors had any semblance of responsibly seeking some possibly valid link between alleged chemical air or water contamination and health effects, they could have decided to assay air, or water, for toxicants linked to fracking. Or, they could have measured levels of potential toxicants in people living at various distances from fracking sites, and then tried to correlate those levels with health effects. But they didn t, likely because they knew that contamination levels from fracking chemicals are not being detected absent actual failure of the casements, a most uncommon occurrence. This is true despite their allusions to the contrary:

Typically, after drilling is complete, fissures are formed using a perforating gun; a mixture of water, proppants and hydraulic fracturing chemicals is then pumped into the rock. Consequently, the fissures remain open to liberate the gas.These substances as well as contaminants released from the shale are present in the flowback water. Contaminants include naturally occurring radioactive materials, toxic organics and metals that may enter ground water, contaminating water supplies especially if leakage occurs from casement failure or from holding ponds for waste water.

Note the may enter ground water [sic]. But it doesn t. To blithely tabulate lumped diagnostic categories as a variable alongside fracking well distance or density makes no scientific nor medical sense, as they likely know. But when their data was dredged and modeled sufficiently to support some statistically significant correlation, their joy at getting some media attention to promote their anti-fracking propaganda must have blinded them to the responsible effort they avoided.

For anyone interested in the facts about fracking and health, visit ACSH s publications here.