Appalachian Basin

*UPDATE* Shale, Infant Health, and the ‘Science’ of Generating Headlines

UPDATE (1/7/2014; 10:10am ET): As predicted, according to Michael Greenstone of MIT, one of the authors of the report in question, the study is incomplete and was not ready to be shared with the media. Andy Revkin of the New York Times highlights the comments on his Tumblr blog:

New work described by @bloombergview & others as showing proximity to fracking is bad for babies is not ready for prime time, says one of the authors, Michael Greenstone of MIT:  ”The newspaper articles describe preliminary results that we did not intend to share with press. We will release a full working paper as soon as we are finished with the analysis.” (emphasis added)

The blog post ends with this appropriate image:

—Original post, Jan. 7, 2014—

This week, an opinion column in Bloomberg News reported on a study suggesting that hydraulic fracturing could be “bad for babies.” Pretty inflammatory stuff. The report, which has neither been published nor even peer-reviewed, was presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Nonetheless, while only an abstract and an opinion writer’s column on the paper appear to be currently available, there are a few key facts to keep in mind.

For starters, since the study has yet to be peer-reviewed, coverage of the report should be taken with a grain (boulder?) of salt until an appropriate, scientific review is complete. As Andy Revkin of the New York Times remarked on a similar non-peer-reviewed study in July 2012 that examined the same subject: “science — however tentative — can get abused when publicity precedes peer review.”

Secondly, the study appears to rule out impacts to water as a potential cause of sub-optimal infant health outcomes. Says Bloomberg columnist Mark Whitehouse:

“Surprisingly, water contamination does not appear to be the culprit: The researchers found similar results for mothers who had access to regularly monitored public water systems and mothers who relied on the kind of private wells that fracking is most likely to affect.”

What’s really “surprising” here is that Whitehouse thinks this is surprising news at all. A number of Obama administration officials, state regulators, and independent experts have consistently and explicitly debunked the urban myth about hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. As such, it should surprise no one that a lack of contamination was also not correlated to any adverse health impacts.

According to Mr. Whitehouse, the new paper examines Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of drilling sites. The upshot? The researchers sample area is basically limited solely to rural parts of the state – areas with lower incomes and far less access to health and prenatal care.

That rural/urban divide in the American health care system is not a new story, of course. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s website:

“Rural counties tend to be disadvantaged in a variety of areas, including poorer health care access, greater poverty, and higher rates of injury and smoking, which may affect maternal and infant health. These comparisons of low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality indicate that the health status of infants living in rural counties, and especially small rural counties, is generally poorer than that of infants in urban or metropolitan counties. For example, in 2008, the rate of postneonatal mortality (deaths from 1 month to under 1 year) was 27 percent higher in small rural counties than urban counties (2.84 versus 2.23 deaths per 1,000 live births, respectively).” (emphasis added)

According to the American Psychological Association, “research continues to link lower socioeconomic status to a variety of negative health outcomes at birth and throughout the life span.” But you know what? Shale development and hydraulic fracturing are actually helping to boost many local economies, indirectly contributing to better health. Take Susquehanna County, Pa.: In 2012, Cabot Oil and Gas contributed over $1,200,000 to help raise the necessary funding for Endless Mountains Health Systems to construct a new hospital in Montrose – the same community where its employees and their families live and work.

New York-based environmental toxicologist Uni Blake has also explored the link between health and economic opportunity. In October 2012, she noted “we need an infusion of better paying jobs to address the health benefits and improve rural health care,” highlighting how economic opportunities can help to improve the overall health of rural communities. In her work she has also noted the importance of natural gas in reducing air emissions in places such as New York City and Rochester, NY, as well as expressed critique of unsupported scientific data. As she described in August 2013 in reaction to a similar public health news story:

“We need better and unbiased information sharing, legitimate and rigorous scientific studies that either dispel or confirm the myth that gas development causes health problems. We need studies that either show direct pathways between a chemical at a high enough concentration (high enough to elicit a health response) and the person who is experiencing the symptoms. We need to avoid being trapped by studies that fall into the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. In this fallacy, pieces of information that are random (have no relationship to each) are called out for their similarities (in this case- locale).”

As Mr. Whitehouse also notes, this latest report builds on the previous work of Elaine Hill, a student at Cornell University, who had suggested infants born near natural gas wells had more health problems than infants born near sites that had merely been permitted for development. At the time, Energy In Depth highlighted some of the critiques of that study, which was also not peer-reviewed before it was sent to the media, and which the author described as “preliminary.” We haven’t heard much from her since.

In addition, the positive public health impacts of increased natural gas use – a reality made possible by the use of hydraulic fracturing – have been widespread across the country. As a recent report by University of California-Berkeley climate scientist and physicist Richard Muller states, “air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas.” Muller says he is “amazed” that local air quality benefits are “not more widely addressed by environmentalists,” especially in the context of the hydraulic fracturing debate.

The Pennsylvania DEP, meanwhile, found that over 500 million tons of emissions have been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks to the increased use of natural gas.  Dr. Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, also recently said, “With proper regulation and enforcement, gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution.” Dr. Michael Greenstone, professor of environmental economics at MIT, has also said, “There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution.”

Good research enables us to understand risks, implement the right protection protocols, and ensure the continued health and safety of people and the environment. After all, the millions of men and women who work for America’s oil and natural gas industry are the same people who live and raise their families in these communities where development is taking place. The lead author of the study, Janet Curie, even says we should not ban shale development, “given how important fracking is for the economy generally.”

But before we jump to any conclusions – such as Mr. Whitehouse saying shale development “could be doing irreversible harm to children,” based almost entirely on this unpublished paper – it’s important to get all the facts. Although this study could ultimately help us further understand the risks and benefits of development, prematurely promoting the research with inflammatory headlines is exactly the kind of “abuse” that Andy Revkin at the New York Times warned against over a year and a half ago. Have we learned nothing since then?


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