Six Flaws in a Yale Study That Tries (and Fails) to Link Fracking to Cancer
Yale School of Public Health has released a new report that was clearly meant to generate alarmist headlines, as it suggests that fracking can increase chances of childhood cancer.
But this “study” has yet to gain any mainstream media attention, and even a quick look at the content of the paper reveals why: It offers no evidence whatsoever to support its alarmist hypothesis, which is just one of its many flaws. Let’s have a look at its six major flaws.
Flaw #1: Researchers simply have no evidence
Despite the foreboding headline of its press release “Fracking Linked to Cancer-Causing Chemicals, New YSPH Study Finds,” the researchers basically admit this “assessment of the evidence” didn’t turn up any hard evidence at all. That’s probably why they had to be vague as possible, using “suggest” and “potential” to describe its findings:
“The study suggests that the presence of carcinogens involved in or released by hydraulic fracturing operations has the potential to increase the risk of childhood leukemia.”
The press release goes on to explain why they couldn’t make this link:
“The presence of chemicals alone does not confirm exposure or risk of exposure to carcinogens and future studies are needed to evaluate cancer risk.”
Of course, the “future studies are needed” language is basically a refrain anti-fracking researchers use to say “we got nothing here” without actually coming out and saying they were unable to prove an ideologically-driven hypothesis.
Furthermore, the authors also admit that even if they could have found evidence that children were being exposed to chemicals used in fracking, the science regarding a link between childhood leukemia and environmental exposures is “limited.”
“Environmental exposures, such as ionizing radiation, benzene, traffic exhaust, tobacco smoke, and pesticides, have been linked to childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, though evidence is generally limited or inconsistent.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Scientists don’t understand the exact causes of leukemia.”
Flaw #2: Fails to acknowledge obvious fact that concentration levels of chemicals determine toxicity
The researchers point out their comprehensive review of EPA data and FracFocus records found fracking fluid includes 20 compounds “associated” with leukemia and lymphoma,
“Though information on the carcinogenicity of compounds associated with UO&G development was limited, our assessment identified 20 known or suspected carcinogens that could be measured in future studies to advance exposure and risk assessments of cancer-causing agents.”
But as stated earlier, the authors themselves note that the mere presence of such chemicals “does not confirm exposure or risk of exposure to carcinogens.” More importantly, even if exposure were to occur, it’s the level of concentration that determines whether a chemical is harmful or benign. In short, dose matters, and chemical concentrations in fracking fluid are very low.
Fracking fluid is typically 99.5 percent water and sand, while the remaining 0.5 percent is made up of additives. According to a recent EPA report of more than 38,000 disclosures to FracFocus, the maximum concentration of all additives was less than one percent and the median maximum fracking fluid concentration was 0.43 percent by mass.
Though the researchers note that a very low percentage of fracking fluid is composed of chemical additives, they exaggerate the percentage significantly and completely ignore concentration level in favor of focusing on volume,
“Typically, about 15–100 million l of fluid are used for each well, of which approximately 1–2% are chemical additives. Representing a substantial volume of chemicals used per well.”
But the fact remains that you are far more likely to be exposed to higher concentrations of many of these chemicals from everyday products found under your kitchen sink or in your garage.
For instance, formaldehyde — which the report notes is a known human carcinogen — is included in glue, car wax, drywall adhesive, caulk, grout and insulation. It also occurs naturally in apples. Benzene — another human carcinogen at high concentrations and exposures — can be found in shampoo, plastic products, PVC pipes, WD-40, paints, gums, resins and auto cleaner.
But obviously, these chemicals are found in low concentrations in everyday products, just as they are in fracking fluid.
Flaw #3: Several studies used to support claims actually found no evidence contamination
In an attempt to justify their claims the researchers single out three studies — Fontenot et al. (2013), Bunch et al. (2014) and Pekney et al. (2014) — claiming, “These studies indicate that water and air pollution related to UO&G activities may pose a public health and potential cancer risk.”
Except that the authors themselves note Fontenot et al. found “mobilization natural constituents” could explain the water contamination it found, while Bunch et al. concluded there is no health concern associated with shale development. The researchers themselves say Pekney et al. “found no exceedances of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for criteria pollutants.”
Flaw #4: Researchers ignore the fact that just about every study, including EPA’s landmark study, has found no water contamination from fracking
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) landmark groundwater report, which took five years to complete, and is considered to be the most thorough report ever to be done on fracking found “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
Dozens of other studies have come to the same conclusion. Just to name a few, a 2013 report by Gradient states,
“[I]t is implausible that the fluids pumped into the target formation would migrate from the target formation through overlying bedrock to reach shallow aquifers.”
“[T]here is no scientific basis for significant upward migration of HF fluid or brine from tight target formations in sedimentary basins.”
A group of this research team’s fellow Yale colleagues even released a 2015 study showing no evidence of chemicals migrating into the drinking water supply,
“We have found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration from shale horizons. This result is encouraging, because it implies there is some degree of temporal and spatial separation between injected fluids and drinking water supply.” (emphasis added)
Flaw #5: Researchers ignore studies finding no air pollution concerns or cancer risks at well sites
There is no shortage of air quality studies that took actual measurements at well sites showing emissions posing no threat at all to public health. The authors ignored every one of them.
The authors ignore that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPH) have conducted air monitoring near well sites showing low emissions. There are at least four other studies that have taken actual air measurements at Marcellus well sites and found emissions that are protective of public health, as well as three such Texas studies to go along with Bunch et al.
There is also no mention of the following studies and expert assessments finding fracking poses no cancer risk.
- The EpidStat Institute and David Garabrandt PLLC conducted a peer-reviewed study in July 2013 that looked at rates of childhood cancer in areas surrounding natural gas wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The study found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.”
- Carnegie Mellon University released a report concluding that “there is no support” to back up activists’ claims about cancer risks from Marcellus shale gas. This study specifically debunked the work of Marvin Resnikoff’s raising concerns about radon, stating he “provided insufficient documentation of the methodology used” and “[a]t this time there is no support for the high mortality argument offered by Resnikoff.”
- A 2015 University of Cincinnati study claiming to fine elevated cancer risk near natural gas wells in Carroll County, Ohio, was retracted recently after the authors revealed “honest calculation errors” led to an exaggeration in the cancer risk from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) emissions by an astounding 7,250 times what the corrected study shows they actually are. The corrected study shows that PAH emission levels are well below the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says would increase risk of cancer.
- The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has completed three studies finding no evidence of a “cancer cluster” near shale development in Flower Mound, Tex. DSHS did not find elevated numbers of leukemia, brain and liver cancers in children, or leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in males and females.
- The Ministry of Health in British Columbia, Canada, released phase two of its Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) of oil and gas activities in the area in 2015, finding that cancer risk from long-term exposure was very low.
- Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk recently said that when it comes to oil and natural gas development impacting public health — including cancer rates — “we don’t see anything to be concerned with,” adding that CDPHE data shows “… from a registry standpoint — we maintain registries based on a number of health conditions, whether it’s cancer, birth defects, etc.— that the rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities.”
Flaw #6: Researchers rely on studies by anti-fracking researchers that have been debunked
The authors used two of the most thoroughly debunked studies of the past several years to further surmise that “Taken together, these findings support the plausibility of an increased risk of childhood leukemia related to oil and gas development.”
They claim Macey et al. (2014) identified concentrations of benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and formaldehyde in exceedance of EPA IRIS cancer risk levels. This infamous study was spearheaded by the anti-fracking group, Global Community Monitor (GCM), which has affiliates around the country known as Bucket Brigades — groups of activists that literally collect air samples in buckets lined with plastic bags to suggest that air quality is being impaired by oil and gas development. In the study the researchers allege that “potentially dangerous” air pollution is “frequently present near oil and gas production sites” on the basis of those “bucket” tests.
The Yale authors even concede the results “were based on grab samples that represented high-exposure scenarios” but cite it as evidence anyway.
They also cite McKenzie et al. (2012). This study just so happens to be the most infamous of a slew of debunked anti-fracking papers by Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH).
Not only has EID debunked this study — pointing out it exaggerated emissions from well development by at least 10 times, failed to take into account exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than a mile away, and failed to note the cancer risk detected was not above the national average, just to name a few major flaws —Garfield County environmental health chief Jim Rada also disavowed the paper for its “significant” data limitations.
“I had no knowledge of what she was studying, or her methods, or the implications of her work.” Rada said. “We are not in violation on ambient air quality standards.”
“We didn’t ask them to do this paper. They were not sanctioned by the county, or paid by the county to do this paper.”
There was a time not so long ago that any study mentioning the words “fracking” and “childhood cancer” would have set off a media firestorm despite being of poor quality. Not this time, though.
Maybe, just maybe, the media caught onto the fact that this study not only offers no evidence to support its hypothesis, but relies on debunked studies, re-interpretation of legitimate papers and good old-fashioned hyperbole to try to convince the public of to buy a predetermined anti-fracking narrative.