Background of researchers conducting or analyzing studies equally as important as what they claim to find
By Nicole Jacobs, EnergyInDepth
StateImpact recently published an article announcing an update to a compendium of anti-fracking health studies put out by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY).
There were a few important details that were left out of the story, however. Primarily the outlet did not disclose that the compendium wasn’t put together by an impartial group of medical experts, but was compiled, peer-reviewed and promoted byanti-fracking activists.
Let’s take a look:
Fact #1: PSR and CHPNY are activist groups whose goals are to “give natural gas a black eye” and ban fracking.
PSR does not make any effort to hide its agenda. Here’s what they have to say about fracking on their website:
“PSR is working in multiple ways to ‘give natural gas a black eye.’”
“PSR Calls for a Ban on Fracking. Read PSR’s revised position statement here.”
CHPNY also is not shy about its intentions. Its Research Director is Kathy Nolan of the anti-fracking Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is fighting needed pipeline infrastructure in New York. Nolan, who is one of the authors of the compendium, has been quoted in the Albany Times Union stating:
“‘Gov. Cuomo and his administration showed great wisdom and courage in listening to the science and ultimately prohibiting high-volume fracking in order to protect public health. Similar to fracking, numerous gas infrastructure proposals pose risks of harm to public health, air pollution, and exacerbating climate change,’ said Kathy Nolan, a member of both groups and the research director of the environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper.”
What’s more is that Steingraber did not disclose her anti-fracking bias and even signed a document declaring she had no conflicts of interest.
When her bias was brought to light, she told Fox news she had no problem peer-reviewing a paper about shale gas development while also being an outspoken opponent of shale gas development. According to the Jan. 19 news story, Steingraber said:
“I think we are all proud of our ability to be conservative and analytical and absolutely objective about the data. I look at the data and call it as I see it.”
Yet only two days later, Steingraber gave a speech to the anti-fracking victory party at the Hilton Hotel in Albany, where she essentially took credit for achieving the ban on fracking. In a piece entitled, “How We Banned Fracking in New York” she exclaimed,
“We are the maker of this story that has been shaped by our unceasing, unrelenting efforts—all of which mattered and made a difference […] Against fracking infrastructure, we will prevail. I am playing to win.”
Fact #2: Anthony Ingraffea, who by his own admission is an anti-fracking activist who writes “advocacy-laced” research, reviewed the compendium for “technical accuracy.”
The StateImpact the article explains,
“Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor emeritus who reviewed the compendium for technical accuracy, said the studies were selected for their relevance to the debate on fracking rather than because they support a particular point of view.” (emphasis added)
But StateImpact fails to disclose that Ingraffea serves on the board of Earthworks, a group that has likened fracking to rape and is a part of the “Keep It In the Ground” movement whose goal is to stop the development of all fossil fuels. Further, during last year’s hearing in Dimock, Ingraffea said under oath,
“I am a self admitted advocate, yes.”
But that’s not all considering that while at a 2014 event in Colorado Ingraffea explained that his research is “advocacy laced”:
“You can read any of the papers I participated in writing and you can easily detect the words we use, the phraseology…predilection. I wouldn’t say bias…it’s too strong a word. But, in the conclusions and in the summaries and the abstract, it’s clear what we owe people to provide by reading this paper. And that’s a form of advocacy. And we have advocacy-laced…advocacy-laced words and phrases in our papers.”
Fact #3: The Johns Hopkins studies StateImpact cites were led by an activist and have been debunked.
StateImpact specifically mentions a 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University, stating:
“Among the studies cited was one by Johns Hopkins University, published in August this year, that found Pennsylvanians with the highest exposure to fracked gas wells had higher rates of migraines, nasal problems and fatigue than the rest of the population.”
But if fails to note that one of the researchers is Brian Schwartz, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, an anti-fossil fuel organization that has called fracking a “virus.” Further, that study was actually unable to find causal links to fracking. From the study’s press release:
“’We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,’ Schwartz said.” And, “In general, cross-sectional surveys such as ours cannot access temporal relations between exposures and outcomes, and we did not ascertain the onset dates of some symptoms.”
In addition, EnergyWire reported:
“The study did not determine a causal link, said lead author Aaron Tustin, a resident physician in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Having said that, we think it’s a possibility,” he said.”
But that isn’t surprising considering the vast majority of participants and reported symptoms were actually from areas without shale development. In fact, only four percent of the study’s participants live in the five counties that happen to have the most shale development in the study area. As EID previously noted,
- Tioga County, which has 661 shale gas wells — sixth most in the state — had just four participants, two of which reported symptoms.
- Bradford County, which has 1,097 shale gas wells — second most in the state — had just 12 participants, 10 of which reported symptoms.
- Sullivan County, a small county geographically that includes dozens of shale wells, had just 20 participants, 11 of which had symptoms.
- Susquehana, a major shale county, had 69 participants, 45 which reported symptoms.
- Lycoming County is the only major shale county with significant representation, as it had 233 participants, 128 which reported symptoms.
The article goes on to list additional topics of studies included in the compendium, at least one of which was also conducted by the same team of authors as the migraine study. EID has actually analyzed the data of this team’s last three health studies, though, and in each one data show that areas with no drilling have much higher levels of symptoms than areas with shale development – contrary to the researchers’ claims of a link between development and health impacts.
In the study on premature birth that StateImpact mentions by topic, the researchers claim living closer to shale wells increases the risk of premature birth. But 11 percent of women had premature deliveries in the area closest to shale wells, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is on par with the national average of roughly 1 in every 9 babies being born prematurely – or about 11 percent of babies. This means the rates near wells were not elevated at all, as the researchers tried to suggest.
Finally, while the researchers’ asthma study is not specifically mentioned in the article, it is included in the compendium and worth mentioning.
That study is contradicted by Pennsylvania Department of Health data, which show that heavily drilled counties have far lower rates of asthma hospitalizations than counties that have no shale production at all.
The Department of Health data also show asthma hospitalizations declined by 26 percent from 2009 to 2013, when natural gas production in the state soared.
And this is only a snapshot of the types of studies included in the compendium.
The background of researchers conducting or analyzing studies is equally as important as what they claim to find. And it’s the media’s responsibility to make sure the public has that information on hand—otherwise the average person isn’t getting a complete picture.