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Monday, January 6, 2014

Troubling study: fracking in PA increases infant health risks - Updated

The impact of hydraulic fracturing on public health continues to be a source of controversy, public angst, and growing local, regional, and national efforts to ban the practice. Now, Bloomberg is reporting on a newly-released study that echoes the results of a previous Pennsylvania studyThe Effects of Fracking on Welfare: Evidence from Property Values has found that proximity to hydraulic fracturing operations significantly increases risk to the health of infants: 
In a study presented…at the annual meeting of the AmericanEconomic 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The report notes that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. That cannot be done soon enough, as the results are profoundly troubling.

The report says that water contamination does not appear to be responsible for the increased risk - that it is perhaps due to fracking-related air pollution. This would include the air pollution that results from frackwater storage in open containments – a practice that is totally unacceptable but allowed in Pennsylvania. The chemicals from these containments volatilize and give rise to local air pollution and the nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, and other illnesses that are disturbingly reported from the gas fields.

As I wrote here, the localized impacts from natural gas development are avoidable. The path to minimizing them is straightforward. Mandatory use of best available control technology (BACT) on all gas-related equipment is an absolute must. Open impoundments for storing drill cuttings and drilling waste, and for all drilling-related wastewater, should be outlawed, and closed-loop, closed container systems must be required, now. Ultimately, industry and regulation must drive toward waterless, chemical-free fracking methods.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court recently gave the Commonwealth a chance to pause, reflect, and chart a smarter course on shale gas development. The response to the Court’s decision from state government was pathetically in-character.  The industry and Pennsylvania officials ignore the Court – and studies like these - at their peril. 

And ours.

January 7, 2014 updates: One of the authors of the study says that the Bloomberg headline was premature.

See also this informative selection of blog posts by The New York Times' Andy Revkin on peer-review.


  1. Given this troubling report, why would anyone sit down to compromise with the gas industry? Seems crazy--but that's exactly what a group from one of the hardest hit counties has done--Breathe Easy Susquehanna County. Will they now renounce their new found friendship with an industry that damages babies? Is the prospect of damaged newborns sufficiently "real" for them? See ""Realism" is Frack-Speak for "So long as I get mine...": Marcellus Drilling News and the Breathin' Easy "Total Commitment" of John Hanger's Good NIMBYs":

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Wendy. I sincerely respect your views. But hold on.

    First, this study is not peer-reviewed yet. Let the scientific process play itself out. Then it will be time for action.

    Second, the ad-hominem attacks on 2 friends of mine in your blog are slanted, unjustified, and totally unfair.

    Third, the world is not black and white. "Compromise" needs context and definition. Engaging with the industry to extract improvements in protections for public health and the environment in the face of state government abdication is to be applauded, not condemned, in my view. It helps people and the natural world. Absolutism does not.

    It's adherents of moratoria who are being unrealistic - and who are accomplishing nothing besides posting self-satisfying rants that don't protect people or the environment, and do harm to good people with different views. The hard and unpleasant work being done by those who are willing to risk the wrath of purists - or the gas industry - to advocate for meaningful change deserve credit, respect, and support.

    There is far too much hyperbole on all sides of the fracking debate. Don't contribute to it.

    1. Hi John--and thank you for responding.

      First, I agree that the peer review process must play out. You bet.

      Second, in no way is my criticism an ad hominem attack. It IS a critical review of the position taken by Breathe Easy Susquehanna County. Indeed, that you refer to these folks as friends implies that what's significant to you is that they're friends--not whether or not the criticism is well-founded.

      If my criticism is slanted, unfounded, and unfair you must show me where and how. Otherwise your claims are simply vacuous.

      I have never claimed that the world is black and white. Whether fracking should continue, however, is one of those rare instances where it is black and white. It cannot be regulated to adequate safety. That has been demonstrated over and over. Moreover, improvements that will be utilized selectively, briefly, and only under constant pressure cannot be said to be just. The industry will cut corners elsewhere in order to re-coop expenses in Susquehanna County. And the absolutely will claim that--having made the "improvements"--entitles them to continue fracking. The fact is that what BESC is making possible is not compromise at all--but more fracking. And that means more pipelline, more compressor, more trucks, more.

      This is not about being a purist--and THAT IS ad hominem. It is ab out recognizing that sometimes there is no compromise that is not concession. And this is one of those times. Had Nelson Mandela sat down with the proponents of apartheid to work out a compromise, what would it have looked like? Apartheid for some--the poorest South Africans? Would that have been justice? A little freedom for a few? The comparison is especially apt here since the compromise Switzer and Roter are willing to broker may help a very few for a very short time--but the cost--just like sacrificing the many for the few in South Africa had Mandela sat down with the bigots--is great to the many. And where climate change IS that cost, it IS too high for compromise.

      I will continue to argue for a ban--and moratoria is simply a strategy on the way to that end. This movement is growing--and its members are not in the mood for compromise.

      To tell me "not to contribute to" the hyperbole is a wee bit peremptory. In the first place, being opposed to fracking is not hyperbole. It is a position--one for which you've provided no counter-argument. Second, you need to provide an argument fore the "best available technology" that actually would mean the hazards--from cradle to export--would be avoided or diminished so significantly that we could all go home. You cannot do this--because no matter how safe the pad can be made, the issues are not just the frack but the compressors, the pipelines, the waste pits, the truck traffic, the community rights, the export depot--and the contribution to climate change. None of this is prevented if the gas does not stay in the ground.

      And I am certain you know it. So forgive me if I'm resistant to the patronizing tone implied by telling me what to do.


      Wendy Lynne Lee
      Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

    2. Thank you, Wendy, for confirming once again that you're the most perfect embodiment of why the fractivist movement is going to fail. THAT is worth an ad hominem BOOK which I have a very good outline in my head of how to write. But I'll probably save it for in my old age sometime, AFTER you've made the fractivist movement fail, because right now I'm too busy avoiding getting my name inscribed next to yours on the "Why we fracked the next big fossil-fuel play AFTER the Marcellus TOO" plaque in the zoo that the last remaining polar bears are relegated to.

      But for starters: You, by continuing to enrich yourself with the salary dollars of a universary that you've used in some of our other cyberepistolary gunfights as one of your excuses for burning up more jet fuel than most of the people I know (and your other major excuse is: it's a "given" that the consumption half of fossil-fuel racket is exempt from being deemed evil and therefore only needs "meaningful conservation" -type LIP service), are making JUST as big of "compromises" with frackers as the rest of us are.

    3. Mr. Frost--honestly, I have NO idea what you're talking about here. A lot of verbiage does not necessarily make for coherence. What on earth you think I take as given is equally a complete mystery. I'd love to hear what you've accomplished to insure the anti-fracking movement succeeds.

    4. ME the one with a low SNR? HAHAHAHAHA!

      I recommend that you study your opponents more. In this case, simply re-reading some of your previous threads with me would have been more than amply sufficient for eliminating your need to waste our valued readers' time with the above stupid questions.

  3. A relevant read: "Sustainable Shale Development: The “Middle Ground” That’s Newspeak for Fraud."