Does Fracking Cause Obesity? Fat Chance, Despite Activist Researchers’ Claims

by Nicole Jacobs, Energy in Depth

The latest study from activist research team Susan Nagel (Univ. of Missouri) and Chris Kassotis (Duke Univ.) attempts to connect fracking to obesity in people living in close proximity to shale development.
The team – who has previously attempted to link shale development to impaired immune systemslow sperm countsovarian follicle problems and pre-cancerous mammary gland lesions – takes things to a whole new level of absurdity with its latest joint, purportingthat,
“Exposure to fracking chemicals and wastewater promotes fat cell development, or adipogenesis, in living cells in a laboratory.”
In other words, fracking fluids – more specifically, a 23-chemical concoction created by the team and samples of produced water taken from well sites in West Virginia and Colorado – could cause obesity in mice. But as the News & Observer recently reported,
“The study does not assert that water in fracking zones is contaminated, as some other Duke research has concluded. Kassotis emphasized that the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment, does not prove that fracking causes obesity in people, only that it stimulates the growth of the fat cells of mice in a laboratory.” (emphasis added)
And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported,
“Mr. Kassotis said the research ‘doesn’t show that people are getting fat from fracking,’ but does find that exposure to even small amounts of wastewater from fracked shale gas wells can alter the metabolic health of mice.” (emphasis added)
Nonetheless, Kassotis still insists that “the research bears public health implications for people who live in areas where fracking takes place, potentially exposing residents to the potent chemicals on a daily basis in contaminated aquifers,” also telling the News & Observer,
“People living in these regions may be exposed to these chemicals in the drinking water. They’re trigger cells that are sitting in your body, awaiting to be recruited to become fat cells for energy storage.”
But there are a couple of pretty serious flaws in Kassotis’ assumptions. The biggest of these is that even if these chemicals in fact could stimulate fat cell growth in humans or other animals, there has to be an exposure pathway for this to occur. And the science does not support the theory that people living in close proximity to shale development are being exposed to fracking fluid.
In fact, even Michael Greenstone, co-author of the flawed Marcellus low birth weight study released late last year, stated in a recent University of Chicago fracking debate that there is little evidence that exposure to fracking fluids is affecting human health:
“When you read the news media, it’s ‘Oh the fluids are probably getting into the water one way or another and that’s going to just affect people in a big radius.’ It’s just not in the data.”
And Resources for the Future’s Daniel Raimi explained in his recent book that examines the benefits and potential impacts from shale development that,
“To date, there is no research that indicates that the health of people living near oil and gas wells has been — or is likely to be — harmed by exposure to the chemicals mixed in with fracking fluid.”
This research team’s entire body of shale-related work is based on the assumption that groundwater contamination is widespread near shale development. But that simply isn’t the case. As more than two dozen scientific reports have shown, fracking is not a major threat to groundwater.
In fact, in the last month and a half, three studies have been published in the Appalachian Basin – which includes West Virginia – that confirm, to quote the Associated Press, “as a whole, groundwater supplies appear to have held their own against” the significant shale development that has occurred in the region. Further, one of those studies, which was conducted by Penn State University, found that water in Bradford County – one of the most heavily developed counties in Pennsylvania – have actually improved.
Another flaw in the study is the duration of time that the mice fat cells were subjected to abnormal concentrations. Notably, this research team has a habit of using completely unrealistic concentrations of chemicals in its studies. And while the obesity study actually used diluted samples, similar to the team’s previous studies, it still uses unrealistic exposure limits to reach its conclusions.
In this case, fat cell growth was seen in mice cells “[a]fter two weeks of marinating in these fluids.” Even if a pathway to exposure was created, no person is going to be continuously exposed to fracking fluids for weeks on end.
At the end of the day, it boils down to this: This is yet another in a long line of studies from this research team that attempts to link fracking to health ailments using unrealistic exposures and despite a complete lack of existing exposure pathways.  These type of reports may produce headlines, but it adds nothing to the honest scientific debate regarding fracking and public health.

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