The controversy about the health effects of natural gas exploration and development or “fracking” has taken center stage. It is mostly about anecdotal evidence that correlates to natural gas development activities. Most environmental health experts agree that correlation does not imply causation. When someone claims that their illness is caused by an activity that is occurring within their proximity, we need to look not only at the biological relationship between the chemicals present but also at the exposure risk- how is the person coming in contact with the said chemical and then rule out or rule in the chemical as the cause.
What does the association between the contaminants and the affected populations look like?
Looking for a cause to symptoms should be comprehensive and not be dismissive of other potential causes. This strategy does not insinuate that people are not getting sick; it only stresses the need to look closer at the pathways through which the contaminants are travelling and to turn anecdotal evidence into scientific evidence. however, if all routes of exposure have been contained and there is no viable connection between people and the chemicals in questions, then it is time to move onto another source. We rely on Regulations and Industry Standards to ensure that these connections do not exist. However, there is always human error and machine failure that can lead to connections. In the event of those connections, emergency response protocols remove potentially affected populations from the sources of the problem. This is how it works, this is how we have managed to survive in a society that uses chemicals extensively.
The Role of Anecdotes and Cognitive Disconnect
Anecdotal associations are much easier to believe than scientific associations. I.e., it is easier to believe that there is a connection between natural gas development activities than it is to believe that there is not. We are trained from early on to find patterns. Looking at a 1st graders homework, shows this programming early on; this impresses on most people and they look for patterns between any and all health symptoms experienced around gas development and the chemical used. If you want to sell a remedy for disorder all you have to is talk about a pattern of anecdotal cures associated to the use of the remedy and odds are people will buy your product. We are not programmed to ask the tough questions related to scientific proof. If enough people step forward and claim sicknesses or symptoms associated with natural gas development (substantiated or unsubstantiated), we are quickly sold on the concept that Shale development leads to public health problems.
Shale Health Syndrome: coincidences, prejudice or reality
Scientifically the jury is out. Anecdotal evidence from both sides presents strong anecdotal cases. The suggested symptoms related to shale development activities are broad; they range from headaches to lesions that do not heal. These symptoms cover a broad range that affect a “normal” population. As the shale health syndrome spreads it will require a close look at the scientific evidentiary facts to answer the questions about the reality of the syndrome. Until then people will continue to move ahead with their deep seeded prejudices and ignore logic and make the symptom their reality.