"Last week the Institute of Medicine held a roundtable discussion to examine the “public health impacts” of natural gas development from U.S. shale resources. Unfortunately, as is the case with most events concerning natural gas, it seems the outcome was determined before the first word was spoken. This is clear by a quick review of the agenda which lists the meeting’s second objective as the “application of health impact assessments to identify ways to mitigate adverse health effects.”
As public health researchers we were surprised to see “adverse health effects” readily accepted as a key assumption. Especially considering the evidence supporting this is a collection of anecdotes refuted by international experts and past experience.
Given this background, some context is needed on the events leading to the roundtable, as well as to why the assumption of “health impacts” is problematic.
As natural gas development has moved into new areas, a small group of voices, most with ties to anti-natural gas advocacy groups, has stated the process negatively impacts public health.
Born in the northeast U.S., and finding other supporters across the nation, these actors have claimed natural gas operations have led to health impacts including symptoms such as nosebleeds, sores, nausea, and disorientation among others. These claims, many of which have been disproven, have largely surfaced in just the past few years, despite the 100 plus year history of oil and natural gas development in the United States, over 60 of which have involved the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Make no mistake, health impacts from natural gas production are not a foregone conclusion. Accepting them as one, in our judgment, is irresponsible and is a critical flaw that served as the foundation of this gathering.
The most well known “study” supporting the narrative of negative health impacts, in animals, has received heavy criticism by some of the world’s most respected scientists. For example, in commenting on the study Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, stated “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.” (emphasis added)
However, even more concerning than the acceptance of these “health impacts” was the anti-natural gas advocacy affiliation of many conference participants. Attendees were required to identify themselves before offering inquiries to panelists. As part of this disclosure, it became clear that a majority of attendees not representing media or federal agencies were from anti-natural gas advocacy groups. In fact, the amount of veterinarians from New York and researchers from Ithaca was astounding. Taken together, their presence was large enough to form a significant percentage of attendees, especially those most active in the proceedings.
In fact, one of the more active participants was Jeff Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman identified himself as a representative of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. What we didn’t know at the time was Jeff Zimmerman is a Washington, D.C. based attorney actively litigating against natural gas producers.
It was disconcerting that critical assumptions were made without supporting data, and local activist groups and their litigating counsel, were shaping discussions at what was promoted as an unbiased dialogue on emerging energy sources.
But this important background aside, a closer examination, using experience and comprehensive data as opposed to assumptions, continues to suggest the assertions regarding negative public health impacts from natural gas development are unsupported and unsettled science."
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