Activist Researchers’ Own Data Contradict Claim of Link between Fracking and Sinus Conditions, Migraines and Fatigue
The same researchers responsible for a study claiming premature birth rates are high near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania — even though they were actually below the national average — and a study claiming fracking is associated with increased asthma flare-ups — even though state data shows heavily-drilled counties had far lower asthma hospitalization rates than counties with no shale gas production at all — have put out a new study today that has just about as much merit.
Based off a survey of Geisinger Clinic patients who suffer from at least one of the three conditions, the study claims, “New research suggests that Pennsylvania residents with the highest exposure to active natural gas wells operated by the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a combination of migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms and severe fatigue.” In other words they’re blaming increased incidences of chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS), migraine headaches and fatigue (the most common symptoms people have across the board!) on fracking.
But making that stretch isn’t surprising considering that one of the researchers is Brian Schwartz, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, an anti-fossil fuel organization that has called fracking a “virus.”
With this research team’s track record of biased studies and activism considered — along with the sheer absurdity of blaming such common ailments on fracking — it comes to no surprise that their conclusions are (yet again) highly suspect. Here are four facts to know:
Fact #1: Vast majority of the study participants and reported symptoms were from areas nowhere near shale wells — and non-shale counties have higher participation/symptoms reported ratios than top five shale counties
The authors divided the study area into four “quartiles,” noting that a higher percentage of participants in the fourth quartile — shown in the graphic below, taken from the study — showed clear associations with increased instances of CRS, migraine and fatigue symptoms and proximity to natural gas wells. The researchers concluded that this is due to “quartile four” being located in the northeast region of Pennsylvania, where a vast majority of Marcellus Shale natural gas wells (indicated with yellow dots) are located.
But a close look at the graphic reveals a vast majority of actual cases of these conditions (indicated with blue dots; black dots are controls) reported in “quartile four” in the survey are not actually located in counties with a vast majority of the shale gas wells. Consider the following data on the top five shale gas counties in the study area, which EID has identified on the study graphic:
- Tioga County, which has 661 shale gas wells — sixth most in the state — had just four participants, two of which reported symptoms.
- Bradford County, which has 1,097 shale gas wells — second most in the state — had just 12 participants, 10 of which reported symptoms.
- Sullivan County, a small county geographically that includes dozens of shale wells, had just 20 participants, 11 of which had symptoms.
- Susquehana, a major shale county, had 69 participants, 45 which reported symptoms.
- Lycoming County is the only major shale county with significant representation, as it had 233 participants, 128 which reported symptoms.
Bottom line: graphic “A” clearly shows that most of the reported cases of these conditions in “quartile four” were from areas with little to no shale development.
All told, a total of just 336 of the study’s 7,785 participants (only 4 percent) live in the five counties that happen to have the most shale development in the study area, as the following map from the study illustrates. “T” represents the total number of participants from each county, and if not for the 233 participants from Lycoming County, major shale counties in the study area would barely be represented.
So though the authors say study participants were more likely than non-respondents to live in highest natural gas quartile — which includes the most shale gas production and supports the researchers’ narrative — their own graphic shows most of the participants and cases reported are not near production.
Luzerne County, for instance, had more than 1,500 participants, but just two shale gas wells, according to the report. Basically the sample size was far too small in actual shale counties to produce any meaningful results. If anything, their data show greater reported symptoms farther away from shale development, but of course that doesn’t fit in with their predetermined narrative.
It’s also worth having a quick look at the CRS data by quartile in the bottom left corner of the below graph:
Note that they report 182 instances of CRS in quartile four, which is supposed to be closest to shale wells, yet quartile one has 181 cases and quartiles two and three have 187 and 188 respectively. So even though the researchers claim air pollution from fracking causes CRS, the quartiles with no development actually reported more cases. The only way the researchers could get higher numbers in quartile four was to add two of the most common symptoms ever – headaches and fatigue – into the mix, as can be seen in the bottom row of data.
Similar to the CRS data above, EID identified 21 counties in the study area that have no shale production at all. Interestingly, the ratio of total participation to total symptoms reported in these counties (1 : 0.58) is slightly higher than the total participation to total symptoms reported ratio in the top five shale counties discussed earlier (1 : 0.57). You can view the raw data EID compiled to calculate these ratios here. And if you were to add Luzerne County, which has just two shale wells, to the non-shale county data, the ratio would jump to 1 : 0.62. In other words, rates of reported symptoms are actually a bit higher in non-shale counties within the study area — and there is certainly no indication that even remote proximity to shale gas development results in an uptick of symptoms.
Fact #2: Researchers fail to gather baseline data for migraines and fatigue; baseline data for CRS contradict link to fracking
If you want to determine if fracking had an effect on someone’s symptoms, wouldn’t you want to know if the patient had these symptoms before fracking occurred in their county? In other words, it might have made sense to have baseline data to compare pre- and post-shale development data in Pennsylvania. It would have been so easy to ask that question in the questionnaire that was sent out, but the researchers failed to obtain such data for migraines and fatigue:
“We reasoned that UNGD might be associated with current CRS only for onset of symptoms after 2006, when UNGD commenced in Pennsylvania. To test the associated hypothesis we stratified the CRS group by date of symptom onset (before/after January 1, 2006) and re-ran models within each stratum. While associations of UNGD activity with our other outcomes could also differ by onset date, our questionnaire did not ascertain the onset date of migraine and fatigue symptoms.” (emphasis added)
The researchers did apparently look at some baseline data for CRS noting, rightly, that if you had it earlier than 2006 it probably wasn’t due to fracking:
“When we stratified CRS patients by onset date, the second (OR = 3.27; 95% CI: 1.21,8.82) and fourth (OR = 3.26; 95% CI: 1.14, 9.36) quartiles of UNGD were associated with significantly increased odds of CRS in those whose symptoms began after 2006 (see Supplemental Material, Table S2). There were no associations in participants with earlier symptom onset.”
But for those who had symptoms after 2006: they said there were too few to know if they had to do with fracking:
“UNGD was associated with CRS in individuals whose nasal and sinus symptoms began after the start of UNGD in Pennsylvania, although these estimates had lower precisions due to small number of subjects with recent CRS onset.”
As was the case with the researchers’ premature birth and asthma studies — the former which was highly criticized by a prominent biostatistician for suggesting it had “evidence” of fracking’s harms and also did not analyze baseline data — this latest study finds absolutely no link between fracking and instances of CRS, migraine headaches or fatigue in the study area. Co-author Brian Schwartz conceded in the press release:
“We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,” Schwartz said.
The study did not determine a causal link, said lead author Aaron Tustin, a resident physician in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Having said that, we think it’s a possibility,” he said.
The press release also states:
“In general, cross-sectional surveys such as ours cannot access temporal relations between exposures and outcomes, and we did not ascertain the onset dates of some symptoms.”
And considering the researchers chose to evaluate conditions that can be triggered by a myriad of factors, the study notes that other causal factors other than fracking have to be considered:
“Participants’ exposure to UNGD activity could have been affected by unmeasured factors such as occupation, travel, and time spent outdoors. Additionally, our UNGD activity metric did not allow identification of specific exposures or exposure pathways.”
On that point the report also admits that the people who did submit questionnaires were considered not to be in good health. From the study:
“There was some evidence of selection bias, as survey participants had poorer health (measured by the Charlson comorbidity index) than non-responders.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, migraines can be triggered by hormonal changes (in women), foods, food additives, alcohol, changes in weather, medication and several other factors. CRS, which 13 percent (30 million people) of the U.S. population suffers with, is most often triggered by allergies, according to the Mayo Clinic, and fatigue, obviously, has countless causes that have nothing remotely do with fracking.
Fact #3: Researchers have clear anti-fracking bias
Though EID has pointed it out three times now, it bears repeating: A key member of this research team, as well as the funding of their recent Pennsylvania studies, can be traced to the anti-fracking movement.
One of the study’s authors, Brian Schwartz, is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a group known for espousing discredited “peak-oil” views and, it just so happens, has called fracking a “virus” and states as its mission to eliminate fossil fuels altogether. After being called out for not disclosing that affiliation in numerous reports, this study, as well as his latest asthma study, notes in the disclosures,
“Competing Financial Interests: Dr. Schwartz is a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), serving as an informal advisor on climate, energy, and health issues. He receives no payment for this role. His research is entirely independent of PCI, and is not motivated, reviewed, or funded by PCI. The other authors declare they have no actual or potential competing financial interests.”
Of course, it was never a question of funding — but a question of bias — that prompted EID to raise these red flags in the first place!
But speaking of funding, the researchers also received financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which features at least three board members who are also on the board of World Wildlife Fund, which has made it clear that it is, “against the use of fracking to extract shale gas – or any other ‘unconventional’ fuels – from the ground.”
So it’s no wonder the press release for the study takes an activist stance on Maryland’s fracking moratorium. From the release:
“Maryland’s fracking moratorium is set to expire in October 2017. The moratorium was passed in 2015 out of concern about fracking’s potentially negative environmental effects, before the more recent health studies were completed. Schwartz says Maryland regulators should consider these new scientific findings when they decide whether to allow drilling.
“The moratorium was put in place before we even knew that there were health effects associated with these wells,” Schwartz says. “Now that we do, regulators need to carefully consider their next steps.”
Fact #4: Studies show Pennsylvania’s pollution is plummeting as natural gas production soars
While these researchers desperately try to attribute common illnesses to fracking based on “associations,” real evidence of fracking’s contribution to improved public health continues to come to light.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has just released data from its 2014 air emissions inventory of the natural gas industry, and DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell explains, the state’s greater use of natural gas has led to dramatic decreases in air pollution:
“Although the reported emissions from the natural gas sector increased in 2014, overall our air quality continues to improve due to emissions reductions from other point sources such as electric generating units,” McDonnell said. “Between 2011 and 2014, NOx and SO2 emissions from electric generating units have decreased by 18 percent (27,246 tons per year) and 17 percent (54,973 tons per year), respectively. We remain committed to developing and implementing the most effective ways to control and reduce emissions from Pennsylvania’s natural gas sites.” (emphasis added)
DEP has previously highlighted that the emission reductions from the state’s increased use of natural gas represent “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefits.” Then DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo pointed out:
“It is important to note that across-the-board emission reductions … can be attributed to the steady rise in the production and development of natural gas, the greater use of natural gas, lower allowable emissions limits, installation of control technology and the deactivation of certain sources.” (emphasis added)
Recent studies that actually measure air emissions at well sites – unlike what this study does – have also shown shale development in the Marcellus is protective of public health.
- A recent Pennsylvania report commissioned by Fort Cherry School District in southwest Pennsylvania actually examined air emissions at a nearby well site in Washington County — the state’s most active shale county — and “did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.”
- Another recent Marcellus study led by researchers at Drexel University found low levels of air emissions at well sites. As they explained, “we did not observe elevated levels of any of the light aromatic compounds (benzene, toluene, etc.)” and “there are few emissions of nonalkane VOCs (as measured by PTR-MS) from Marcellus Shale development.” Another Pennsylvania study by Professional Service Industries, Inc., commissioned by Union Township in Pennsylvania that found “Airborne gas and TVOC levels appear to have been at or near background levels for the entire monitoring periods in the three locations monitored.”
- The Pa. DEP conducted air monitoring northeast Pennsylvania and concluded that the state “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” A similar report for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion.
- A peer-reviewed study looking at cancer incidence rates in several Pennsylvania counties found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.”
It is clear from the researchers’ background and their comments on the coming expiration of Maryland’s fracking moratorium that they are desperately attempting to accumulate severely lacking “evidence” of fracking’s harms to public health. In the meantime, the real data — based on actual emission measurements and official state data — completely contradict the “associations” claimed in this and past papers by these researchers, actually showing fracking has been good for public health and the environment.
The researchers have tried to sell the former three times now in the past nine months. But considering their complete lack of evidence and severely flawed modeling, their hopes for a third set of alarmist headlines blaming fracking for the world’s most common ailments may be pushing it.