Marcellus Shale

Institute of Medicine Roundtable: Need Better Perspective on Shale Gas

Sue Mickley
Environmental Protection Committee Chair – Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance; MPH/HA – Yale University

Uni Blake
Environmental Consultant – Toxicologist
Master’s Degree in Environmental Toxicology – American University

Last week the Institute of Medicine held a roundtable discussion to examine the “public health impacts” of natural gas development from U.S. shale resources.  Unfortunately, as is the case with most events concerning natural gas, it seems the outcome was determined before the first word was spoken.  This is clear by a quick review of the agenda which lists the meeting’s second objective as the “application of health impact assessments to identify ways to mitigate adverse health effects.”

As public health researchers we were surprised to see “adverse health effects” readily accepted as a key assumption. Especially considering the evidence supporting this is a collection of anecdotes refuted by international experts and past experience.

Given this background, some context is needed on the events leading to the roundtable, as well as to why the assumption of “health impacts” is problematic.

As natural gas development has moved into new areas, a small group of voices, most with ties to anti-natural gas advocacy groups, has stated the process negatively impacts public health.

Born in the northeast U.S., and finding other supporters across the nation, these actors have claimed natural gas operations have led to health impacts including symptoms such as nosebleeds, sores, nausea, and disorientation among others. These claims, many of which have been disproven, have largely surfaced in just the past few years, despite the 100 plus year history of oil and natural gas development in the United States, over 60 of which have involved the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Make no mistake, health impacts from natural gas production are not a foregone conclusion. Accepting them as one, in our judgment, is irresponsible and is a critical flaw that served as the foundation of this gathering.

The most well known “study” supporting the narrative of negative health impacts, in animals, has received heavy criticism by some of the world’s most respected scientists.  For example, in commenting on the study 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, stated “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.” (emphasis added)

However, even more concerning than the acceptance of these “health impacts” was the anti-natural gas advocacy affiliation of many conference participants. Attendees were required to identify themselves before offering inquiries to panelists.  As part of this disclosure, it became clear that a majority of attendees not representing media or federal agencies were from anti-natural gas advocacy groups.  In fact, the number of veterinarians from New York and researchers from Ithaca was astounding. Taken together, their presence was large enough to form a significant percentage of attendees, especially those most active in the proceedings.

In fact, one of the more active participants was Jeff Zimmerman.  Mr. Zimmerman identified himself as a representative of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.  What we didn’t know at the time was Jeff Zimmerman is a Washington, D.C. based attorney actively litigating against natural gas producers.

It was disconcerting that critical assumptions were made without supporting data, and local activist groups and their litigating counsel, were shaping discussions at what was promoted as an unbiased dialogue on emerging energy sources.

But this important background aside, a closer examination, using experience and comprehensive data as opposed to assumptions, continues to suggest the assertions regarding negative public health impacts from natural gas development are unsupported and unsettled science.

Areas Experiencing Largest Development See Increases in Health Across all Parameters

We took a look at public health assertions last October in response to a letter submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Curious about the validity of these claims, we turned our attention to the Forth Worth, Texas area (the nation’s 4th largest metropolitan statistical area) where more than 16,000 natural gas wells have been developed over the past decade.

What we found was pretty interesting.  Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) from 2000 – 2008 show every major health indicator improved at the same time natural gas production rapidly expanded.

For example, in 2009 natural gas production in the Barnett Shale had increased by 2,144 percent from 2000 levels.  In just nine years, technological advancements enabled 22 times as much natural gas to be produced as was produced in 2000. As production occurred and expanded, the health of the population of those counties simultaneously increased.

Below find a chart that compiles health data obtained from the CHSI.

Denton County Texas Key Health Indicators 2000-2008

2000 2008
Population 65+ 21,703 34,762
Deaths for all causes: 857.7 814.1
Stroke 64.1 44.3
All Cancer 184.1 182.8
Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: 77.5 67.0
Heart Disease 263.8 178.9


We brought these findings to the attention of Christopher Portier, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  He was quite surprised.  It was as though the idea that natural gas development brought public health benefits never occurred to him.

His response was not unique. In fact, the entire conference seemed dominated by a frantic rush to identify negative outcomes. This left the attendees missing some very real, and shared, benefits occurring in communities where natural gas development is taking place.

 Most Informing Presentations Seemingly Lost Among Clutter of “Health Effects” Speculation

A large part of the conference involved questions that seemingly had no answers, unless you know where to look.  From this perspective, the most informative presentation was provided by Michael Honeycutt, Ph. D, Director of the Toxicology Department of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Dr. Honeycutt was the only panelist with direct regulatory experience and he presented data his department has collected on natural gas development over the past two decades.

His presentation reviewed data from the most extensive natural gas emissions monitoring program in the nation, including data from over 1,126 fixed and mobile monitoring stations and over 2,100 site surveys using emissions finding infrared technology.

These findings showed that as natural gas extraction increased exponentially, harmful air emissions like benzene and other volatile organic compounds decreased. Further, the data showed the area hadn’t seen an increase of pollutants, or public exposure to pollutants at levels that would cause public health concerns, due to natural gas development in nearly twenty years of production from shale resources.

Another informative presentation was provided by Dr. Charles Groat from the University of Texas-Austin. As background, Dr. Groat served as the 13th Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and currently serves as the Director of the Energy and Earth Resources Program at the University of Texas-Austin.

Dr. Groat presented findings from his study which reviewed historical data to determine if hydraulic fracturing has impacted groundwater resources.  The study found, “no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself — the practice of fracturing the rocks — had contaminated shallow groundwater.”

In making this determination, the study examined, among other items, the degree to which any documented environmental violations actually impacted human health. In the review, 58% of violations were procedural in nature and had little or no impact on the environment. The most prevalent violations were generally preventable and the study found no evidence of a contamination pathway for the transport of chemicals that would cause public health concerns.

 The Difference Between Relying on Experience and Assumptions 

One of the more glaring discrepancies of the conference was the pairing of Dr. Honeycutt’s presentation with that of Dr. John Adgate, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH).  Dr. Adgate presented findings from a controversial public health impact assessment based on assumptions, and limited observational data, rather than comprehensive data and experience.

The pairing of Dr. Adgate and Dr. Honeycutt seemed to serve, likely inadvertently, as a summary of the “public health impacts” discussion to date.  Studies based on experience show no areas of concern while those focusing on assumptions, and limited data sets, elicit speculation of significant public health impacts.

In this case, the CSPH study found that residents living near natural gas operations were at a greater risk of exposure to harmful air pollutants including benzene, and thus had greater exposure to cancer causing contaminants.

One of the problems with this finding, and the overall assessment, is that it’s based on a study using a limited number of air monitors, all of which were located within a mile of a major interstate.  From the study:

 CSPH: “The GCPH collected 16 ambient air samples at each cardinal direction along 4well pad perimeters (130 to 500 feet from the well pad center) in rural Garfield County during well completion activities… All five well pads are located in areas with active gas production, approximately one mile from Interstate-70.” (p. 9-10, emphasis added)

The location of the study’s limited sampling data sacrifices the study’s findings. Especially, considering EPA, in its Final Rule to Reduce Mobile Source Air Toxics, notes that “most of the nation’s benzene emissions come from mobile sources. People who live or work near major roads, or spend a large amount of time in vehicles, are likely to have higher exposures and higher risks (emphasis added). Meanwhile, the study’s control samples were three miles removed from that same interstate.

At the same time, the study made unrealistic assumptions on exposure times to the flawed data sets that only exacerbated errors in the study’s conclusions.

Oil and Gas Workers Viewed as “Sentinels” and Key Focus of Discussion

Much attention was rightly paid to the plight of workers in the nation’s oil and natural gas fields.  Here too, it seemed alarmism drove the conversation rather than data born from experience and fact.  One federal official asserted “that oil and gas drilling in general is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. The fatality rate in that industry is multiples of the private sector, upwards of seven times higher.”

That official failed to cite the data they were referencing.  This is especially relevant considering data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the oil and natural gas industry is quite safe. According to the BLS data the oil and natural gas industry is:

The key focus of worker safety however was a presentation by Eric Esswein, senior industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Esswein highlighted his study which examined exposure of workers on hydraulic fracturing sites to silica pollution.  The study, which was widely acclaimed as the largest breakthrough of the proceedings, found workers in multiple states exposed to significant levels of silica above federal standards.

In fact, the findings led one participant to proclaim “I saw a picture from NIOSH that made me think of the Gauley Bridge and the tragedy that happened in our country when we were fiddling around with silica.” The participant was referring to a 1935 incident where hundreds of workers died within months of silica exposure.

Hydraulic fracturing has been widely used since the 1990’s without one known death occurring due to silica exposure.  This, however, didn’t keep the media from raising alarms (sub’s reqd.) centering on the finding. The good news, which was not reported, is that technology currently exists to immediately halt this exposure. Specifically through the use of bagger systems which collect errant silica dust before it is able to enter the environment and impact humans.

But more troubling is the idea that, as the CSPH study declared, those living in close proximity to natural gas operations are at a higher risk of developing cancer than the general public.

The CSPH study provides these individuals with a higher rate of developing cancer than workers who are at a natural gas well sites often in excess of over 60 hours a week.  This is noticeable in a previous report from the Australian Institute of Petroleum which reviewed 18 years worth of health data and found the cancer rates of oil and gas workers to be no different from the general population.

From the report:

“The age-adjusted death rate in men [in the oil and gas industry] is significantly less than in the general Australian male population. Death rates in all major disease categories – heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diseases of the digestive system, and external causes (accidents, violence etc) – are also significantly less than the corresponding rates for the male population.”

“The chance of getting most types of cancer is the same for men in this industry as for all Australians.”

While the report did find elevated cases of mesothelioma, melanoma and prostate cancer among the sample of workers these were attributable to other causes. In regards to mesothelioma, the study found significant numbers of participants had prior exposure to asbestos in previous employment.  For melanoma and prostatic cancer the study found, “the rate did not increase with increasing duration of employment or with increasing exposure to hydrocarbons. On this basis and from what is known of the causation of these two cancers, it is therefore unlikely that either is caused by a factor in the workplace in this industry.”

What We Learned- Unbiased Health Professionals Seemingly in Short Supply

Overall, the conference showed there is a good amount of speculation occurring at all levels in regards to the “public health impacts” of natural gas development.  What was clear is that decades of experience, data and studies are currently being ignored as a borderline hysterical conversation takes place. Those involved in the discussion are seemingly approaching it at a frantic pace with little forethought into what data already exists to provide clarity to the frightening claims made by a few.

We were alarmed by what we saw and think it’s critical to approach this conversation in a rational manner based on sound science and hard data.  This simply can’t be accomplished when groups accept key assumptions as fact when data and experience show a much different reality.

For this reason, and others, we are working to form a nation-wide network of health care professionals who will seek to contribute to this discussion based on the wealth of data and experience that exists.  We will highlight the positive benefits of this development, and take a hard look at any potential negative health consequences, but will do so using existing data and sound science while avoiding the politicization of poor study assumptions that lead to good sound bites and bad science.

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