New Study Attempts to Link Fracking to Health Problems

A new study has been released which concludes that shale drilling activity can be linked to increased occurrences of migraines, fatigue and chronic sinus symptoms.  

Not surprisingly, pro-drilling and anti-drilling media outlets have resulted in very different reporting on this study.

Here is how the study was reported on by StateImpact Pennsylvania, a consistently anti-drilling outlet which receives funding from anti-drilling organizations:
A new study published today in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives shows an association between living near heavy gas drilling activity and common ailments like chronic nasal and sinus symptoms, severe fatigue, and migraines. The report is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Geisinger Health System and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 
“These three health conditions can have debilitating impacts on people’s lives,” says Aaron W. Tustin, MD, MPH, a resident physician in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “In addition, they cost the health care system a lot of money. Our data suggest these symptoms are associated with proximity to the fracking industry.” 
The researchers used health surveys gathered from almost 8,000 patients of Geisinger Health System from 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania and divided the results into two groups. One group reported no symptoms, while the other reported two or more. This data was then matched with the proximity of respondents to heavy gas drilling activity. The researchers used gas drilling locations and intensity of shale gas production provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and satellite imagery from the group SkyTruth.
The article later notes these remarks from Sara Rasmussen, one of the study's authors:
Sara Rasmussen, a Ph.D. candidate at the Bloomberg School and an author on the paper, says the three health symptoms were selected because they are common, can result in large economic costs, and are potentially linked to environmental factors such as chemical toxicity, odors and stress. The report suggests an association, but the data does not reveal a direct cause.

“We’re not able to point a finger at a specific pathway,” said Rasmussen.
Pro-drilling site Natural Gas Now had this to say about the study after noting the anti-drilling connections of one of it's authors, Brian S. Schwartz:
Schwartz’s latest junk science attack on fracking, in fact, is one of those pseudo-academic reports intended to obscure the lack of evidence for the headline. It does so with scientific sleight of hand that’s not too hard to catch if you’re paying attention: 
  1. Although 39 Pennsylvania counties were sampled for the study, there were relatively few participants from the major drilling areas of the Commonwealth. There were only 12 participants from Bradford County, for example, the most heavily drilled among those sampled. That’s out of 7,785 total participants. And, here is the map of “Cases in 4th quartile of UNGD activity” compared with shale well drilled. “UNGD” stands for unconventional gas development. The 4th quartile of activity supposedly represents the top one-fourth of those impacted, where there is a correlation between development and the symptoms of sinus, migraine and fatigue issues.
Post Carbon Institute
Look really closely at the map. When you do, you’ll see the bulk of the cases are outside the area of drilling. They are mostly found in Columbia, Lackawanna, and Luzerne Counties or the gas-less areas of Lycoming, Sullivan and Wyoming Counties. We are never told anywhere in the study just how far a person with a migraine can be from a well and be considered to have been affected by it, but we can see from this map at least three-quarters of the cases supposedly most affected are located in Berwick, Carbondale, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and other urban centers. They parallel the interstate routes through the region. What Schwartz and company appear to have done is deliberately include such areas by uses of obtuse formulas that suggest it is gas drilling, fracking and the like that are producing what is really the impact of highway traffic and urban development.
2. The way answers to surveys were counted also ensures cases were generated. The authors say, for example, they “dichotomized the three responses. Responses of ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ were scored as no and responses of ‘less than half the time’ or ‘half the time or more’ were scored as yes.” Hmmm. A glass that is less than half-full is full. Even a glass that is three-quarters empty is apparently full. Only a glass that is almost empty is empty. Junk science is taken to a whole new level.
3. The authors also admit “Compared to the reference group, individuals with each single outcome were more likely to be younger and current smokers (Table 2).” Indeed, only 9.7% of the members of the reference group were current smokers, compared to 13.6% to 26.2% for those with symptoms. The study states “Exposure to allergens, toxicants, and secondhand smoke may trigger nasal and sinus symptoms,” but otherwise ignores smoking as the likely cause of many the problems identified.
4. The study also includes several disclaimers (emphasis added):
“This study had several limitations. In general, cross-sectional surveys such as ours cannot assess temporal relations between exposures and outcomes, and we did not ascertain the onset dates of some symptoms… Our ascertainment of self-reported outcomes was susceptible to various types of information bias. For example, despite the fact that our questionnaire did not mention UNGD,individuals residing near UNGD may have over-reported symptoms. There was some evidence of selection bias, as survey participants had poorer health (measured by the Charlson comorbidity index) than non-responders… Another limitation is that our estimates of well development phase durations, although based on published average values, may have been incorrect for individual wells. Further exposure misclassification could have occurred because our UNGD activity metric was based on residential addresses. Participants’ exposure to UNGD activity could have been affected by unmeasured factors such as occupation, travel, and time spent outdoorsAdditionally, our UNGD activity metric did not allow identification of specific exposures or exposure pathways.
The last one, of course, is the one that really matters and the one likely to be ignored by fractivist media outlets and sympathizers. Correlation says nothing about causation. This study offers nothing whatsoever as to show how drilling and fracking in Susquehanna County might have caused someone in Scranton to get have a sinus problem.

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