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Health links hyped to drive fear of fracking despite studies that fail to back up claims
By Valerie Richardson-The Washington Times
March 3, 2014
DENVER — Environmentalists are still waiting for proof that hydraulic fracturing makes people sick, but that’s not stopping them from whipping up anxiety over public health.
Two high-profile research papers seeking connections between hydraulic fracturing and health issues in Garfield County, Colo., are being trumpeted as evidence that fracking is harmful, even though the studies don’t show that.
In fact, state health officials have criticized the papers — one dealing with birth defects, the other with hormone disruption — for their methodology. Neither study can prove causation, only suggest examples of association between ailments and proximity to oil and gas development.
Even so, environmentalists routinely cite the studies as evidence that those living near fracking sites are at elevated risk of bearing children with birth defects or developing hormonal disorders, including infertility and cancer.
“These findings suggest that fracking causes babies to be deformed — the more we learn about fracking, the worse it gets,” Gary Wockner, Colorado director of the anti-fracking group Clean Water Action, told Ecowatch in a Jan. 30 post. “If you live near a fracking site and you want to have a healthy baby, you should consider moving.”
A Feb. 5 article in the liberal New Republic carried the headline: “Evidence is Mounting that Fracking Causes Birth Defects.” National Geographic carried a Dec. 20 post, “Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals Linked to Fracking Found in Colorado River.”
“These results, which are based on validated cell cultures, demonstrate that public health concerns about fracking are well-founded and extend to our hormone systems,” Concerned Health Professionals of New York said in a statement on the Water Defense website. “The stakes could not be higher.”
The paper about birth defects, released in January by the Colorado School of Public Health, showed that pregnant women living within a 10-mile radius of a fracking site were more likely to give birth to babies with congenital heart defects but less likely to give birth prematurely. Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, warned that “it is difficult to draw conclusions from this study, due to its design and limitations.”
He noted that the study failed to distinguish between active and inactive wells or between horizontal versus vertical drilling, nor did it factor in air and water quality. In the case of rare ailments like neural-tube defects, he said, the study did not control for risk factors such as whether the mother smoked or drank alcohol during pregnancy.
“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who-at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” Dr. Wolk said in a Jan. 30 statement. “Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
Sean Paige, deputy state director of the free-market group Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, accused the movement of “misusing and distorting science in order to generate headlines or score political points.”
“Because creating public anxiety is the fracktivist’s most potent energy-war weapon, it’s only natural that the most unscrupulous among them would cherry-pick any reports that they can twist or turn into something really alarming,” Mr. Paige said.
The fracas has erupted as activists gear up for another round of attacks on hydraulic fracturing after scoring local ballot wins. Voters in three Colorado towns and one Ohio community — all of which had little to no fossil fuel development — approved fracking moratoriums in November.
Two of those bans have been challenged in court, but activists in Colorado are seeking to place an initiative on the November statewide ballot that would allow communities to supersede state authority by banning oil and gas development.
Central to the anti-fracking argument is the public health argument, and that’s where the studies come into play. A paper released in December by researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found greater concentrations of hormone-disrupting chemicals in water near fracking sites in Garfield County, Colo., versus control sites in Boone County, Mo.
“We found more endocrine-disrupting activity in the water close to drilling locations that had experienced spills than at control sites,” MU School of Medicine associate professor Susan Nagel said in a statement. “This could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”
The study has been challenged by state officials and industry advocates, who point out that endocrine disrupters also are found in common household items such as shampoo.
“Authors of the study are unsure of the exact source of the [chemicals] and even acknowledge that the chemicals could come from a host of other sources besides fracking,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said in a statement.
Critics also ask whether comparing groundwater in Missouri and Colorado is legitimate, given the differences in geology, rainfall and other environmental factors.
The study’s authors acknowledge, “Both naturally occurring chemicals and synthetic chemicals from other sources could contribute to the activity observed in the water samples collected in this study.”
“Studies like this have appeared from time to time around the country, and they always have the same problem: They find a trace chemical, in this case in the Colorado River, and they just sort of assert that it came from hydraulic fracturing,” said Greg Walcher, former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “It’s just plain bad science.”
Hydraulic fracturing, which involves shooting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into underground shale rock layers to extract fossil fuels, typically lasts three to four days in the life of a 30-year well.
(Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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