Four Reasons – Beyond the Obvious One – Why a New Report on Fracking and Sperm Counts in Mice is Very Silly
The same research team that appealed to anti-fracking activists Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono after their work was rejected by the National Institutes of Health for not being “good enough to be funded” has just published a new study proclaiming that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in fracking fluid causes low sperm count in mice.
Before we get into the numerous flaws (and absurdities) of the study, it’s worth noting that the supervising researcher, 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.”
While the researchers were not able to secure funding from the National Institutes of Health, they did receive a grant from the Passport Foundation, which also provides funding to anti-fracking groups such as the NRDC, EarthJustice, and the Environmental Working Group. As EID pointed out in a recent report, the Passport Foundation is part of the Health and Environmental Funders Network (HEFN), which was also behind number of “reports” (many of which were written and peer reviewed by anti-fracking activists) that were used to justify the ban on fracking in New York.
With that backstory, it’s not surprising that the researchers present the most unlikely scenario in order to suggest the worst possible health outcomes. Here are a few facts to consider:
Fact #1: Researchers manufactured a concoction of far more chemicals than are ever used during fracking, and at far higher doses, and then declared harm
The researchers created a cocktail of 24 chemicals that, if consumed in very large doses, are known to cause health problems. They then injected this cocktail – in very large doses – into the water of pregnant mice and declared that it caused the baby male mice to have low sperm counts. No wonder the National Institutes of Health wouldn’t fund this study!
Speaking to the very high level of chemicals the mice were given, the lead researcher, Christopher Kassotis perhaps put it best when he admitted, it’s “unlikely people would ever be exposed to doses quite as high.”
As for the concentration, the researchers explain in the study,
“Test concentrations included a 0.2% ethanol vehicle, 166.67 _g/mL flutamide control (androgen antagonist; estimated exposure 50 mg/kg _ d), and four concentrations of a mixture of 23 oil and gas operation chemicals, with each individual chemical present at 0.01, 0.10, 1.0, and 10 _g/mL (3, 30, 300, 3000 _g/kg _ d of each chemical estimated exposure).” (p. 5; emphasis added)
The researchers say they exposed the mice to doses as high as 300 and 3000 g/kg/d yet, at the end of the study, they admit that if these chemicals were ever to be exposed to humans (more on that later), they would be at far lower doses:
“Considering these concentrations, it is likely that environmentally realistic human exposure would be in the range of 3–30 _g/kg _ d, experimental doses assessed in this study, suggesting that we have appropriately captured environmentally relevant oral exposure levels for wildlife and/or humans living in dense-drilling regions.” (p. 9; emphasis added)
As the Huffington Post just reported,
“Nagel acknowledged that the highest of the four concentrations her team added to the drinking water of pregnant lab mice — a level that mimicked the concentrations found in fracking wastewater from some Colorado drilling sites — was unlikely to represent realistic human exposures.”
Even though they admit to subjecting the mice to extreme doses, far higher than what would ever plausible, they make the head-scratching claim that because they also subjected them to doses in the range of 3-30 g/kg/d that means they used doses that were at appropriate levels!
This is also the same research team that has long pushed the false claim that hydraulic fracturing uses more than 1,000 chemicals, but a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which looks at more than 38,000 disclosures to the FracFocus website, completely debunks them on that point, noting that the “median number of additive ingredients per disclosure for the entire dataset was 14.”
Further it’s well known that fracking fluid is typically 99.5 percent water and sand, while the remaining 0.5 percent is made up of additives. According to that same EPA report, the maximum concentration of all additives was less than one percent and the median maximum fracking fluid concentration was 0.43 percent by mass.
In other words, the researchers exposed mice to 24 chemicals even though the median number is 14 for any given fracking operation – and they did so at extremely high concentrations even though they admit that wastewater would never have levels even remotely that high.
Fact #2: Researchers have admitted they have no evidence to claim EDCs from fracking are contaminating water
This latest paper follows the trajectory of a previous study by the same research team. In that paper, they claimed to have located EDCs from fracking at a number of sites in Garfield, Colorado. They have since admitted that they had no scientific evidence to make that link. As Nagel stated in an October 8 NPR interview,
“We did not prove that those spills were the cause of the increased endocrine disrupting activity in the water.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) agreed. In a statement to the media, its Water Quality Control Division listed a series of criticisms against the paper, including the fact that
“There are numerous (thousands?) septic systems in Garfield County. We don’t know how this may influence endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) concentrations in groundwater.”
CDPHE also noted that the researchers’ geological assumptions were “not factually or scientifically valid” and “there is no indication in the study that any of the sample sites are currently used for drinking water.” The medical publication Clinical Advisor further noted “a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water.”
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.” (emphasis added)
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 not only agreed, but actually stated that the EDCs they examined could be coming from sources other than fracking. From their previous 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, emphasis added).
The researchers went on to explain that “agricultural and animal care operations could potentially contribute to the measured activity in Garfield County.”
But having scientific evidence doesn’t seem to be a priority. When asked about what her work means for public health in her recent interview with NPR, Nagel answered,
“Sure, so what know from occupational exposure and from a very large literature on endocrine disrupting chemicals, what we can expect although we haven’t done the studies yet to show: what we can expect are really all kinds of negative health outcomes related to fertility, related to the ability to get pregnant, to stay pregnant; certainly reduced sperm count shave been associated with exposure both in people and in the lab. Also, other effects that we expect are developmental effects. So when unborn children are exposed, they are a particularly sensitive population and even young children and in that case the brain is exquisitely sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals and so what we have seen over and over again is that exposure changes behavior, you know, increases activity and all sorts of other behaviors that are not normal.” (emphasis added)
Fact #3: Meanwhile, the EPA’s landmark five-year study found no widespread contamination from fracking
The researchers’ conclusion rests on the assumption that spills from oil and gas development are prevalent and causing widespread water contamination, exposing families to loads of EDCs. But EPA’s five year study of fracking and groundwater – the most thorough study to date on fracking – came to the opposite conclusion. As the report explains,
“[H]ydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
EPA also looked as spills and found the number of cases of groundwater being impacted by development activities to be “small”:
“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” (ES-6, emphasis added)
Fact #4: Researchers’ own data show that that EDCs exists in just about everything under our kitchen sinks – likely at higher levels of exposure than in fracking fluids
EDCs are found in just about everything we use on a day to day basis. As the researchers own data show, EDCs are located in dyes, perfumes, plastics, personal care products, detergents, cleaning agents, and the list goes on:
It’s also worth noting that six of these chemicals are also surfactants – chemicals what were recently found to be “no more toxic than common household substances” by a University of Colorado-Boulder report.
Not only are these chemicals in just about everything we use, they are also located in nature. The chart also clearly shows that at least ten of the chemicals that were tested are naturally occurring, which is important considering that numerous studies have found naturally occurring chemicals in water wells before oil and gas development ever occurred. The most recent one comes from a report by researchers at Syracuse University, which looked at 21,000 baseline samples in Pennsylvania and found,
“no broad changes in variability of chemical quality in this large dataset to suggest any unusual salinization caused by possible release of produced waters from oil and gas operations, even after thousands of gas wells have been drilled among tens of thousands of domestic wells within the two areas studied.”
The bottom line is that in order for a chemical to be of concern for toxicity there needs to be a concentration high enough to cause harm and a pathway for contamination. With chemicals making up less than percent of the fracking fluid, and even EPA stating that there’s no credible threat to drinking water from fracking, it’s more likely that exposure to these chemicals is greater in your kitchen or garage.