Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shale dwellers deserve better health reporting

Cabot Well - Montrose
A story came across the wire yesterday “Fracking Health Project Puts Numbers to the Debate.”  The story raises more questions than answers and feeds into the fear already gripping a portion of the population.

Out of the population of 200,000 residents of Washington County, PA, who live around 700 drilled wells, the project focuses its outcome on 27 self-reported symptom sufferers from one clinic. Were they clustered around one well? compression station? several wells? Were their symptoms confirmed through medical examinations? Or is this another rush to release information because of the said data’s importance (Cornell’s Elaine Hill’s PhD thesis comes to mind).

This story is eerily similar to the story out of Dish, Texas. In that story, some of the residents living in Dish felt that the natural gas boom was making them sick. They blamed the chemicals used in the process - they were experiencing nosebleeds, rashes and also claimed that they had cancer cases developing. The allegations were so alarming that it thrust the town into the national limelight.  Similarly to the Washington County study, the allegations didn’t have enough scientific weight, raised more questions than answers and elicited fear from the public.  The town commissioned an air study to support their case. After the controversial air study showed elevated levels of several chemicals, the state health department stepped in. They took samples of the town resident’s blood and urine and found nothing to implicate gas development. End of story.

Cancer cases can potentially be removed as a suspect shaledweller condition. A study commissioned by the Australian Institute of Petroleum called Health Watch looked at 19,000 Oil and Gas industry worker’s health. Participants were tracked for over 30 years. If cancer was a concern from Benzene and other related chemicals exposure, this study would have exposed it.  The study concluded -“The overall cancer rate of employees in the petroleum industry is no different to the average cancer rate for the general Australian population. However, more data is always welcome. We need long-term monitoring programs just as a precaution.

If the industry is keeping chemicals contained and functioning with meaningful setbacks, then exposure to chemicals at levels of concern should not be occurring. If they are occurring, then what we need are better regulations.

Chemical odors? Smelling a chemical doesn’t necessarily mean that your health will be compromised (think perfumes).

The bottom line is that people are worried and their concern should not be taken lightly. 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). There is a possibility that a gas well, a nose bleed, a rash or respiratory difficulty could all be randomly occurring and have no links at all.  Consider how common nosebleeds are among children. A 1979 study showed that 64 percent of children between the ages of 11 and 15 experience nose bleeds (Rhinology. 1979 Jun;17(2):83-90.) and rashes have numerous causes and hence are very common.

If gas development or compression stations singularly or collectively are determined to be the cause of health complaints, then we need better regulations and management practices and not bans.

Uni Blake
Environmental Affairs


  1. Also if they are concerned about tracking at least exposures and they are in PA - they should consider sending a copy of their baseline testing data to the Citizens Groundwater Database. Grassroots effort to document the health of PAs groundwater and surfacewater using certified data. http://www.water-research.net

  2. What this author completely ignores is that the EHP study in Washington County represents the standard first step in a public health science investigation, the identification of a “case series.” Because epidemiological studies, especially in complex systems, can take literally a decade or more to reach a definitive characterization of causation, the public health system needs another way to decided whether or not to go on high alert. This is necessary to be able to respond in time frames that match the rate at which diseases can potentially spread (e.g. zero to global pandemic in weeks). To give an example, when West Nile virus first appeared in NY City, the public health department established a case series after the identification of only five affected individuals. That was enough to put the public health system on high alert (even though initially no one knew what was the primary source of infection) and begin taking the measures that fortunately prevented an epidemic.

    In southwestern Pennsylvania, in Washington county, we have a case series of 27 people who seem almost certainly to have been injured as a consequence of normal, day-to-day, unconventional natural gas development activities (not exceptional spills or releases, normal activity). Now, ask yourself why is the response to a five person case series (red alert in the case of West Nile virus) so different from the shoot-the-messenger response to a twenty-seven person case series done by highly qualified, public health scientists and physicians.

    1. Dr. Michael - I appreciate your comment and your willingness to dialogue.
      The weaknesses of Case Series should have been identified and your conclusion of "almost certainly" is surprising.
      While you refer to the West Nile Virus as a lesson learned, I refer to the Silicon in Breast Implants debacle which finally ended with the IOM stating that breast implants do not provide a basis for health concern. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that false positives, false negatives and equivocal results always cause a cascade of negativity which leads to anxiety and distress.
      In the EHP, the case results lead to widespread conclusions, along the lines of “Fracking is making people sick.” I have to hand it to Dave Brown of EHP, he chose his words carefully while reporting the findings, and made a point not to not draw any conclusions. Unfortunately some groups read what they wanted and ran with the information unabated.
      My point was not to criticize the group but just to point out that we need more robust studies instead of equivocal results. People living over the Shale deserve it.