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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Media Reports That Study Concludes Fracking is Bad for Babies; Study's Authors Say Those Headlines Are Premature

In yet another example of the media rushing to latch onto something that can be used to condemn fracking, Bloomberg ran a story with the alarming headline "Study Shows Fracking Is Bad for Babies".  However, the authors of the study say that the media should not have been in such a rush to print that story.

First, here is what the Bloomberg article had to say:
The energy industry has long insisted that hydraulic fracking -- the practice of fracturing rock to extract gas and oil deep beneath the earth's surface -- is safe for people who live nearby. New research suggests this is not true for some of the most vulnerable humans: newborn infants.
In a study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in Philadelphia, the researchers -- Janet Currie of Princeton University, Katherine Meckel of Columbia University, and John Deutch and Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites. They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.
The study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed or posted online, comes at a time when state and federal officials are grappling with how to regulate fracking and, in the case of New York State, whether to allow the practice at all. Much of the available research has been sponsored either by the energy industry or by its critics. Independent studies have found evidence of well-water contamination in areas close to fracking activity. Establishing a direct link between fracking and human health, though, has been complicated by a lack of information on the chemical substances used in the process and the difficulty of obtaining health records that include residence data.
At least the article did note that the study hasn't been peer-reviewed or made available for download - in the third paragraph.

As for the study's authors?  Here's what they had to say:
New work described by @bloombergview & others as showing proximity to fracking is bad for babies is not ready for prime time, says one of the authors, Michael Greenstone of MIT:  ”The newspaper articles describe preliminary results that we did not intend to share with press. We will release a full working paper as soon as we are finished with the analysis.” The work builds on an earlier study in the region that was discussed in depth on Dot Earth.
The industry's response came quickly from Energy in Depth:
For starters, since the study has yet to be peer-reviewed, coverage of the report should be taken with a grain (boulder?) of salt until an appropriate, scientific review is complete. As Andy Revkin of the New York Times remarked on a similar non-peer-reviewed study in July 2012 that examined the same subject: “science — however tentative — can get abused when publicity precedes peer review.” 
Secondly, the study appears to rule out impacts to water as a potential cause of sub-optimal infant health outcomes. Says Bloomberg columnist Mark Whitehouse:
“Surprisingly, water contamination does not appear to be the culprit: The researchers found similar results for mothers who had access to regularly monitored public water systems and mothers who relied on the kind of private wells that fracking is most likely to affect.”
What’s really “surprising” here is that Whitehouse thinks this is surprising news at all. A number of Obama administration officials, state regulators, and independent experts have consistently and explicitly debunked the urban myth about hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. As such, it should surprise no one that a lack of contamination was also not correlated to any adverse health impacts. 
According to Mr. Whitehouse, the new paper examines Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of drilling sites. The upshot? The researchers sample area is basically limited solely to rural parts of the state – areas with lower incomes and far less access to health and prenatal care. 
That rural/urban divide in the American health care system is not a new story, of course. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s website:
“Rural counties tend to be disadvantaged in a variety of areas, including poorer health care access, greater poverty, and higher rates of injury and smoking, which may affect maternal and infant health. These comparisons of low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality indicate that the health status of infants living in rural counties, and especially small rural counties, is generally poorer than that of infants in urban or metropolitan counties. For example, in 2008, the rate of postneonatal mortality (deaths from 1 month to under 1 year) was 27 percent higher in small rural counties than urban counties (2.84 versus 2.23 deaths per 1,000 live births, respectively).” (emphasis added) 
Certainly it would be premature to draw full conclusions from the comments of an author on preliminary results of a study which hasn't been subjected to peer review.  

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