Credibility of Leading Fracktivists Taking Hits From Multiple Sources

Josh Fox has made some interesting accusations about fracking increasing the likelihood of breast cancer in areas of shale development.  He has received support from other leaders of the anti-fracking crusade in this.

Not everyone is taking his comments and treating them as gospel, though.

The EPA's ruling that gas development has not contaminated Dimock, PA's water isn't helping Fox and his loyal followers either.

From Shale Gas Review:
After making analogies between the tobacco and drilling industries, Fox states this: 

In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties.

Without further exploration or analysis, Fox ridicules a pink drilling rig. Presented in the context of the film, it’s emblematic of the disingenuousness of the industry’s attempts to solve everything with public relations, (which is indeed is an easy target for lampoon).

The approach is cinematically effective; the pink rig juxtaposed with the reference to the cancer registry data is sure to elicit a gasp from industry cynics. It also plays off the title of the film – The Sky is Pink – suggesting the preposterousness of the industry’s capacity to give a damn about the facts. These are deft executions by Fox as a filmmaker. But Fox also presents himself as a journalist; and the breast cancer reference has opened his entire work to a critical offensive not only from the industry scholars and discerning students of public and environmental health, but from the mainstream media. 

Fox’s primary source of information, as noted in a follow-up defense of his work, was a report in the Denton Record Chronicle by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe. The story, August 31, 2011, reports that the average rate of breast cancer in six counties rose from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. The story adds that the rates are below the national average, and that researchers did not attribute a cause, although it might involve “many factors.”

Public records compiled from cancer registry data give a snapshot of cancers diagnosed in given places at given times. (I learned this from years of fist hand reporting on several statistically significant leukemia clusters over industrial TCE plumes under several neighborhoods in Broome County New York.) But they are not a tool intended for or capable of accounting for myriad risk factors and demographics necessary for a meaningful epidemiology study. Cancer exposures typically must be accounted for over time (prior to diagnosis). So patients’ histories, life styles, occupations, and migrations need to be factored in. Also, how can one risk be separated from another? Smoking? Diet? Age? Health Care access? Poverty level? Are people moving into the area with these risk factors from another area?

When taking into account all these kinds of factors, sometimes patterns emerge from cancer registry data that are invisible in the vagueness of the big picture; and sometimes patterns that seem significant on face value disappear. Yet Fox’s film – highlighting a map showing blocks of red over the Barnett Shale representing elevated breast cancer rates – fails to mention, much less account for, any of this. It’s the very kind of rhetorical recklessness that Fox blames on the industry, and it has prompted similar kinds of criticism

“Saying something causes breast cancer is like yelling fire in a theater. It should be only said when true,” states John Hanger, who headed Pennsylvania’s efforts to regulate the shale gas industry under Gov. Ed. Rendell. (Hanger was a primary pursuer of the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to order Cabot Oil and Gas to build a waterline to Dimock to compensate residents for an aquifer damaged by drilling-related methane migration.) You can read his blog on the Sky is Pink here.
From the New York Times:

In reviewing information on cancer in drilling zones, I noticed that a letter on health risks and gas drilling sent by Steingraber and other signatories to Gov. Cuomo last December used far more definitive language than that in Fox’s new video to describe the cancer question in Texas:
Preliminary evidence points to high rates of cancer in intensively drilled areas. In Texas, breast cancer rates rose significantly among women living in the six counties with the most intensive gas drilling (Heinkel-Wolfe, 2011). By contrast, over the same time period, breast cancer rates declined within the rest of Texas.
The reference is not a scientific study, but a news article that, as Wilber’s piece shows, says nothing of substance about a link between drilling and cancer.
I spoke on the phone last week to Simon Craddock Lee, the cancer analyst at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center cited above, about breast cancer in Texas and he pointed to the reality that raw rates of cancer incidence and deaths say nothing about causality, given the mix of social and environmental factors in play. He added, “It would be really hard to hide a cancer cluster if there was one. ”
I also asked for input from Texas’s Department of State Health Services on the findings of the news article cited by Fox and Steingraber and the general state of understanding of cancer rates in the state. A spokeswoman, Christine Mann, provided a helpful and detailed reply that I’m adding as a comment below to conserve space here.
And from the New York Post:
But Fox’s latest film, “The Sky Is Pink,” sets a new low. It tells viewers that, even as US cancer rates are falling, breast cancer is rising in the Barnett area of Texas because of pollution caused by fracking.
An Associated Press investigation found that Fox has absolutely no scientific evidence for this claim.
AP spoke to David Risser, an epidemiologist with the Texas Cancer Registry. He found no breast-cancer spike in Barnett. Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, also dismissed Fox’s claims.
Even Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the famous cancer-advocacy group, said it had seen no spike in breast cancer cases.
Confronted with these facts, Fox cited a press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that doesn’t support his claim, and a newspaper story that, Risser told AP, was “not based on a careful statistical analysis of the data.”
Frightening the public with a bogus breast-cancer scare is despicable. It may scare some families into moving away, or divert medical resources from areas with real problems.
Faced with cancer experts telling him he’s wrong, it would be ethical to issue an apology and correction. But Fox has continued to make the claims, regardless of the science.
A corporation behaving like this would be out of business, with its executives looking at prison. But Josh Fox is being rewarded for his lies.
HBO has a sequel to “Gasland.” And the Hollywood and environmental elites — Mark Ruffalo, Yoko Ono, Debra Winger, Robert Redford, Bill McKibben and Robert Kennedy — are supporting him.
All are silent about Josh Fox’s despicable lie about breast cancer.
Even Paul McCartney, whose mother and wife Linda died from breast cancer, has remained quiet. The former Beatle is a vocal campaigner for breast-cancer awareness — yet astonishingly is also a vocal supporter of Josh Fox. He recently joined Artists Against Fracking, which cites “Gasland” as a source of information and has Fox as a prominent member.
And from the Washington Times:
The fact that scientific evidence has contradicted claims made by critics of fracking is nothing new. Back in 2010, former Mayor Calvin Tillman of Dish, Texas (near the Barnett Shale) gained national prominence for giving talks in several states about the dangers of fracking and threatening to leave his town if the air quality didn't improve. Yet a study by the Texas Department of State Health Services found that the levels of volatile compounds in the blood and urine of Dish residents could not be directly attributed to natural gas drilling.
The study, which analyzed 28 blood and urine samples, noted that all four residents with higher levels of benzene in their blood were cigarette smokers. And out of 27 samples of tap water from homes, only one home had a contaminant exceeding regulatory limits — a by-product from mixing the disinfectant chlorine with drinking water.
Fox responded to the AP article by Kevin Begos in a blog post:
THE SKY IS PINK calls attention to several health studies that point to serious questions and risks in gas drilling areas and supports those who are calling for further study. Further study into public health risks is a good thing. It's not an exaggeration and it's not bad science. Kevin Begos also refused to deal with the main thrust of THE SKY IS PINK which is to point to the enormous failure of the gas industry to stop their wells from leaking into aquifers. He also misses the point entirely, that the film calls for FURTHER STUDY on the issue. Which is to say MORE SCIENCE.
Robert Horner, an environmental policy analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, said in an interview that he agrees with the notion that more research needs to be done about fracking's effects on groundwater contaminants. It's difficult to "disentangle" whether contaminants such as methane are naturally occurring, already in the groundwater or present because of recent drilling, he said.
What do you think?  Did Josh Fox go too far with the cries of fracking-induced breast cancer?

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