Perhaps motivated by the fact that their own research has failed to convincingly tie oil and gas development to reproductive problems, anti-fracking researchers from the University of Missouri recently released a “systemic review” of studies of the “association between oil and natural gas extraction processes and human reproduction” in an attempt to revitalize their tired narrative.
Their book report of studies however, is made up mostly of studies from foreign countries or of studies that have nothing to do with shale development at all — something these researchers have done before.
This isn’t surprising considering; EID has noted many times, the primary researchers — Susan Nagel and Christopher Kassotis — have a clear record of anti-fracking bias. Against that backdrop, here are five reasons the conclusions of this “review” don’t stand up to scrutiny.
#1: Most of the studies reviewed were from foreign countries and/or have nothing to do with the oil and gas development
Many of the studies used examined health effects near petrochemical plants in Asia, which obviously has nothing to do with oil and gas extraction in the United States. One study of particular note examined “Increased incidence of preterm delivery in mothers residing in an industrialized area in Taiwan,” while another preterm birth study looked at oilfields in proximity to the Amazon River in South America.
Another report studied sperm count for employees in a petrochemical complex in China. Yet even that study didn’t even make a link, as the report notes: “Because sperm counts were only decreased in the exposed smokers, Wang et al. suggested that the health effect from petrochemical occupation exposure may be exacerbated by smoking.”
The title of the paper, “Systemic review of the association between oil and natural gas extraction processes and human reproduction,” really couldn’t be clearer with regard to clarifying the review’s intended focus. But a quick glance at the report’s reference list shows that just 18 of the 45 studies reviewed could be even remotely considered to have anything to do with oil and gas extraction.
For instance, four of the six studies pertaining to preterm birth actually studied petrochemical plants rather than extraction. Another study focused on “occupational exposure to organic solvent mixtures during pregnancy and the risk of nonsyndromic oral clefts” and is in no way related to oil and gas extraction. A study that examined the “outcome of pregnancy among women engaged in laboratory work at a petrochemical plant” in Sweden also made the cut, as did a study looking into “sex ratio at birth associated with petrochemical air pollution in Taiwan” and research on “antiestrogenicity of environmental polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in human breast cancer cells.”
All told, 32 of the 45 studies were conducted in foreign countries, and three of studies’ country of origin was unknown.
#2: Researchers include three of their own debunked studies and other discredited reports
Of the few studies used that are actually somewhat relevant to the stated purpose of the paper, three happen to be debunked research by the researchers themselves, while another is a debunked study that is often cited by this research team. The researchers also acknowledge that one of those studies has a low confidence rating, while three showed no health effects at all.
The research team’s own debunked research features a study that proclaimed exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in fracking fluid causes low sperm count in mice. But it is essential to understand this conclusion was reached due to the fact that researchers injected a chemical cocktail in very large does into the water of pregnant mice and declared that it caused the baby male mice to have low sperm counts.
This fact prompted Kassotis to admit it’s “unlikely people would ever be exposed to doses quite as high.” So it’s no wonder the National Institutes of Health wouldn’t fund this study! (NIH found it fit to fund this “review,” however).
Another Kassotis/Nagel study included in this review focuses on water samples from five areas in Garfield County, Colo., that are known to have had “a spill or incident related to natural gas drilling processes” within the past six years. These data are compared against a small number of samples from “drilling sparse locations” in the same county and a “drilling absent location in Boone County” (That’s Boone County, Missouri, by the way).
Colorado regulators found major problems with the study, as the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment immediately criticized it, noting that it included geological assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid” and that it ignored other sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as septic tanks. CDPHE also stated, “there is no indication in the study that any of the sample sites are currently used for drinking water.” The medical publication Clinical Advisor noted that the study had “a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water.”
The final Kassotis/Nagel study included in this review claimed to find increased endocrine disruption activity downstream from a West Virginia wastewater disposal well in 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.
As bad as those studies are, the most criticized study included in this review was a recent paper by Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) that suggested a link between fracking and birth defects.
This study was actually disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which provided the state birth records used for the paper. As a disclaimer in the paper itself read:
“CDPHE specifically disclaims responsibility for any analyses, interpretations, or conclusions.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. On the day the paper was made public, the CDPHE followed up with a statement from the department’s executive director (a former Pediatrician of the Year), Dr. Larry Wolk, who said the public could “easily be misled” by the paper.
Wolk said health officials “disagree with many of the specific associations” in the study, which rely on “miniscule” statistical differences. The researchers also ignored “many factors” besides natural gas development in their research.”
As the paper came under closer scrutiny, one of study’s co-authors was quietly forced to admit: “It’s certainly not a conclusive study, and it doesn’t demonstrate that pollutants related to shale development have caused birth defects.” (emphasis added)
#3: The authors admit NONE of the studies looked at exposures or potential exposure pathways
At least the researchers are refreshingly blunt when discussing the quality of their “review,” admitting:
“We conducted a systematic review to the best of our knowledge, but there are several limitations.”
And the following limitation just so happens to be a biggie:
“Finally, none of these studies quantified actual exposure to any chemical or mixture of chemicals; some routes of exposures are suggested, but none are demonstrated.”
Nonetheless, the authors — without even a sense of irony — immediately go on to claim their review suggests oil and gas extraction clearly cause reproductive issues, and that “The impacts from unconventional oil and gas activities will likely be greater, given that unconventional activities have many similarities to conventional ones and employ dozens of known endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the process of hydraulic fracturing.”
#4: Authors again exaggerate number of chemicals used and fail to note that dose and exposure determine toxicity
As these researchers have done many times before, they greatly exaggerate the number of chemicals used in fracking fluid,
“Out of 1,021 chemicals identified in hydraulic fracturing fluids, 240 chemicals had toxicity information.”
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, which looked 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, with regard to toxicity, 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.
Bottom line: Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean that it’s present in harmful concentrations.
#5: Researchers have a long history of anti-fracking bias
Kassotis and Nagel are quickly becoming to reproductive studies what what Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraefea are to methane studies in the anti-fracking activist world.
Nagel has been notably out front with her activist tendencies, actually appealing to anti-fracking activists Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono to help her team fundraise for their research after their work was rejected by the National Institutes of Health for not being “good enough to be funded.” 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.”
Far more relevant than this “review” of inaccurate and/or completely irrelevant studies are recent comments by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk regarding the misinformation activists continue to push regarding fracking and public health.
Wolk recently told the Greeley Tribune that when it comes to oil and natural gas development impacting public health, “we don’t see anything to be concerned with.”
“I’m not going to tell anybody to go drink a pint of liquid petroleum or stand over an active well site and wave the fumes in to breath them in,” Wolk said. “Nobody would argue that this stuff isn’t toxic, but it’s all about exposure to toxins, and we don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time.” (Emphasis added)
Wolk noted that heavily drilled Weld County, Col., does not have significantly more, and in many cases, it has fewer, instances of asthma, cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and low birth weights than other Front Range counties.
“Despite public fears that oil and gas development is causing asthma, birth defects and cancer, statistics from the health department show oil and gas has not affected the general health of Weld County, which produces 90 percent of the state’s oil.” (Emphasis added)
Similar statistics have recently come out of Pennsylvania as well, further demonstrating these researchers are pushing a political ideology rather than the facts.