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Pennsylvania medical society cites flawed fracking studies in call for moratorium

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Medical society calls for ban on Pennsylvania fracking

Released peer-reviewed study noting significant medical, climate benefits result of increased use of natural gas for electricity generation

This week, the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PMS) asked Governor Wolf to issue a ban on all new natural gas development making the debunked claim that “growing evidence has shown its increasing deleterious effects outweighs any economic benefit.” It will come as no surprise that the studies used to reach this decision are seriously flawed.

But what’s even more interesting is in 2013, when a ban was first proposed to PMS, the group turned it down on the grounds that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was conducting an extensive study of fracking and its potential impacts on groundwater.

PMS instead decided “to call for the immediate release of the interim results of that study so that policymakers can act quickly and responsibly” (page 18).

In 2015, EPA did in fact release the draft version of its study which foundhydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development even said in a press release, “It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date.”

In other words, EPA’s study showed that the process does not pose a credible threat to drinking water. So PMS seemingly just chose to ignore EPA’s landmark study and focus on studies (mainly written by activists) that have been published since the group’s 2013 denial of a ban. From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,

“Pennsylvania has invested heavily into shale gas drilling, but in-state health studies have demonstrated worsening asthma, premature births, neurological and mental symptoms, and other adverse effects,” said Protect Pennsylvania’s news release, which cited as appropriate precautionary steps the bans or moratoriums on shale gas development in New York, Maryland and Vermont.”

Let’s take a look at those in-state studies:

Asthma

Back in July, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Geisinger Health Systems released a study that claimed those who live near shale gas wells are “1.5 to four times likelier to have asthma attacks than those who live far away.”

As Energy In Depth noted back when the study was released, though, the key flaw of the study was that by the authors’ own admission they had no data to show causation of increased asthma exacerbations from shale development. Reuterseven reported that,

The study doesn’t prove fracking causes asthma or makes symptoms worse.”

But that’s not all. In fact, data from Pennsylvania’s own Department of Health show that heavily-drilled counties within the study area have far lower age-adjusted rates of asthma hospitalizations than nine counties in the study area that have no shale gas production at all. It also shows that asthma hospitalizations declined by 26 percent during the years when shale gas production was soaring in Pennsylvania.

Dr. David Scott of the Allergy and Asthma Center of Western Colorado told KREX in an August interview that the study offers no evidence that the actual fracking process plays any role in either causing asthma or exacerbating asthma. From the interview:

“The study did not show that hydraulic fracturing in any way causes asthma. It showed that increased fracking activity which encompasses a lot of different activities, was associated with an increased number of asthma exacerbations.”

Premature Births

In October 2015, Johns Hopkins University released a study that attempted to link fracking to premature births in Pennsylvania. But as EID noted when the study was released, based on the data, authors were forced to acknowledge that they couldn’t credibly link shale development to these birth outcomes, but the connection probably existed. From the study press release:

“While the study can’t pinpoint why the pregnant women had worse outcomes near the most active wells, Schwartz says that every step of the drilling process has an environmental impact.”

Dr. Gilbert Ross, senior director of medicine and public health at the American Council on Science and Health, told The Heartland Institute in an interview,

Realistically, there is no way hydraulic fracturing could have had an impact on pregnancy outcomes,” said Ross. “Fracking occurs two miles below the surface, and the Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing widespread water contamination. There is no plausible mechanism to explain how pregnant women might have been exposed to anything related to fracking to cause attenuated gestation duration. Indeed, the authors didn’t measure any levels of possible toxicant exposure,” said Ross. “How could they, of course, in a retrospective analysis such as this?”

And that,

If living close to fracking activity were truly influencing premature births, we would expect to see the highest incidences of early deliveries in the areas nearest fracking wells,” Ross said. “One of the key criteria in assessing whether a possible factor is causally related to an outcome is called ‘dose-response,’ meaning if A causes B, then more of A should cause more of B.”

But he’s not the only health professional that was highly critical of the study.

In August, Dr. Tony Cox — who is a clinical professor of biostatistics and informatics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, as well as President of Cox Associates, a Denver-based applied research company specializing in quantitative medical health risk analysis, causal modeling, advanced analytics and operations research — penned a letter to the editor in the journal Epidemiology that essentially confirms that the study’s claims lack merit.

His issues predominantly stemmed from the study’s methodology:

First, ‘unconventional natural gas development adversely affects birth outcomes’ is an unwarranted causal interpretation of associational results: in general, ‘the associational or regression approach to inferring causal relations — on the basis of adjustment with observable confounders — is unreliable in many settings” (2). Without explicit causal analysis (e.g. Granger causality tests, causal graph models), claiming that associations provide evidence for a causal conclusion is unjustified.”

Neurological and Mental Symptoms

In July 2015, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University released a medical study, which asserted a correlation between natural gas development and an increase in hospitalizations in three Pennsylvania counties: Bradford, Susquehanna, and Wayne.

More specifically, these researchers claimed cardiologic and neurologic incidences increased more in zip codes with higher well densities. Once again, though, as EID noted, it is the authors that make it clear, “the study does not prove that hydraulic fracturing actually causes these health problems.”

In the actual study the researchers also admit,

The precise cause for the increase in inpatient prevalence rates within specific medical categories remains unknown.” (Page 14)

Further, by the authors’ own admission, these medical conditions take decades to develop and they didn’t look at a long period of time. They acknowledge this limitation in the study, noting,

“We recognize that a five-year observation period may limit our ability to discern a direct impact on health in the surrounding community but may offer an opportunity to assess hospital utilization rates over time.” (Page 13)

Contrary to this study, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania also conducted a study that looked at inpatient hospitalizations in Lycoming and Bradford Counties in northwestern Pa., and Green and Washington Counties in the southwestern part of the state. These are some of the most heavily drilled counties in the Marcellus. It found:

“Inpatient hospitalizations in the four counties and the two regions increased slightly in the northern tier and decreased slightly in the southwest, but it is not possible to directly connect this to Marcellus Shale drilling.”

So let’s recap—PMS was hesitant to call for a ban without knowing what the EPA’s study found, so called for its draft release.

EPA released the draft, found minimal risks, so PMS instead used studies that failed to find a connection to fracking in their conclusions as justification for calling for a ban. And in doing so, the group ignored additional comments and research.

For instance, just last month Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk said that when it comes to oil and natural gas development impacting public health, “we don’t see anything to be concerned with.” From the Greeley Tribune:

“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)

Ok, but that’s not Pennsylvania and PMS was specifically looking in-state. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) just released the 2014 air emissions inventory for the Marcellus of which DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell explained, that the state’s greater use of natural gas has led to dramatic decreases in air pollution:

“Although the reported emissions from the natural gas sector increased in 2014, overall our air quality continues to improve due to emissions reductions from other point sources such as electric generating units,” McDonnell said. “Between 2011 and 2014, NOx and SO2 emissions from electric generating units have decreased by 18 percent (27,246 tons per year) and 17 percent (54,973 tons per year), respectively. We remain committed to developing and implementing the most effective ways to control and reduce emissions from Pennsylvania’s natural gas sites.” (emphasis added)

Carnegie Mellon released a peer-reviewed study just last week with similar findings, noting that significant medical and climate benefits are a result of the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation. In fact, researchers estimated that continuing to increase natural gas usage could provide as much as $20 to $50 billion in healthcare cost savings:

“The human health benefits of such a switch are substantial: SO2 emissions are reduced from the baseline (MATS (Mercury and Air Toxics Standard) retrofits by 2016) by more than 90%, and NOX emissions by more than 60%, reducing total national annual health damages by $20 to $50 billion annually.”

And where is that natural gas coming from that is providing such incredible medical benefits to Pennsylvania residents? Pennsylvania is benefiting from the state’s natural gas all around, even becoming a net exporter of the resource last year.

There is no question that the development of our shale resources has had significant benefits on the residents of the Commonwealth—and that includes health benefits.

To call for a ban on future development at a time when jobs are returning to the state within the shale industry is short-sighted at best.

Worse yet, to base this resolution on flawed studies that provide no connection to fracking at all is just plain wrong.

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