Johns Hopkins Junk Science: Fracking Gives You Headaches

junk-science.jpgIn April 2015 a “study” from Johns Hopkins University claimed fracking has led to high levels of radon in nearby homes in PA (see Johns Hopkins Says PA Fracking Causing High Radon in Nearby Homes). That study was a sham and was debunked. In October 2015 a “study” from Johns Hopkins University claimed fracking leads to premature births in PA (see New Junk Science Claims PA Fracking Leads to Premature Births). Again, it was debunked as a sham. In July of this year the same Johns Hopkins group released a “study” claiming fracking makes asthma worse (see Sham “Study” from Johns Hopkins Says Fracking Makes Athsma Worse). Also shown to be a fraud. See a pattern? When we saw yet another junk science “study” coming from the same group of virulent anti-drillers, using the once-great name of Johns Hopkins to cover for anti-drilling shillery, our first thought was to ignore it since this new “study” is more of the same agenda-driven, false “science” B.S. (Barbara Streisand). But report on it we must. The latest anti-fracking “study” coming from Johns Hopkins claims that fracking leads to headaches, fatigue and sinus problems. The one, big, glaring problem with this study is that almost all of the subjects whose doctor records were used live OUTSIDE of drilling areas! That’s what passes for science and academic rigor at Johns Hopkins. It’s all political science, absent any real science…

The reason we have to report on this is because mainstream media is picking it up and in their typical lazy fashion, simply regurgitating the “findings” of the “study” without questioning the study or its authors as to their veracity. Mainstream media does so because the study and its findings fit their prejudices and preconceived narrative that fracking is evil. Honestly, do you believe a SINGLE THING you read in mainstream newspapers anymore? Shame on you if you do.

Here’s how news of the study was reported by the anti-drilling shills at taxpayer-funded PBS StateImpact Pennsylvania:

Headline: New study links gas drilling to migraines, fatigue and chronic sinus symptoms

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.

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. “The study does contribute to a growing body of papers that show an association between unconventional natural gas development and health outcomes. It’s important for legislators to take this into account when deciding how to move forward with this industry.”

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, emeritus dean of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health Sciences, says he wishes a study like this had been conducted sooner.

“These are the kind of studies that should have been done five, six, seven years ago when we had a great opportunity to do before and after,” he told StateImpact. “We’re sort of playing catch up now.”

Goldstein did not contribute to the study.

The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission under former Governor Tom Corbett recommended this type of study, but it was never conducted. Goldstein says the American Petroleum Institute did request proposals from researchers for these types of health studies, but ended up not funding them.

“We’ve had a long wait for these studies,” he said.

The American Petroleum Institute says it’s committed to protecting the safety of the communities where drilling takes place and working with regulators.

“Safety is a core value for the industry, and the men and women in our industry are committed to protecting the communities in which they operate,” spokesman Reid Porter wrote in an email. “Our industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, and we have a long history of setting high standards, and working with federal, state and local governments to ensure the highest level of safety possible.”

The researchers found that of the 7,785 survey participants, 23 percent reported suffering from migraines, 25 percent experienced severe fatigue and 24 percent had chronic rhino sinusitis (CRS), which is at least three months of nasal and sinus symptoms.

Rasmussen says those who lived closest to heavy drilling activity were 49 percent more likely to have CRS and migraines together compared to those who do not. That same population was 88 percent more likely to suffer from CRS and heavy fatigue, 95 percent more likely to have migraines and fatigue, and 84 percent more likely to experience all three symptoms.

Rasmussen says more research is needed to determine whether there is a direct causal link with shale gas drilling, and what that cause would be. She says it could be a number of things including, odors, stress, noise, bright lights, or increased truck traffic.

Dr. Goldstein says if the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health had conducted these types of health surveys years ago, the state would be in a better position to protect resident’s health by pinpointing the exact cause.

“That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for,” Goldstein said, “and I can’t get it (from this data set) and it’s frustrating because these are the kind of studies that should have been done by now.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. (1)

Did you catch the comments by the STUDENT who is one of the lead AUTHORS of this study, the anti-drilling Sara Rasmussen? She said “We’re not able to point a finger at a specific pathway.” In other words, we can’t prove anything. But, “It’s important for legislators to take this into account when deciding how to move forward with this industry.” How’s that for a non sequitur? Apparently Ms. Rasmussen missed her classes on classical logic and thinking.

UPI (nee United Press International) which used to be one of two great “wire” services in the U.S. UPI picked up and ran a story written by Ms. Rasmussen and several of her collaborators–as if it’s real news.

The fracking industry has been an energy success story: Natural gas prices have decreased as fracking has skyrocketed, and natural gas now produces more electricity than coal does, which has resulted in improved air quality. The first states to begin unconventional natural gas development with fracking have cited potential economic, energy and community benefits.

Yet early on, communities where fracking spread raised doubts. Nearby residents reported a variety of common symptoms and sources of stress. Public health professionals trumpeted their concerns, and epidemiologists launched health studies of the industry. States like Pennsylvania, where almost 10,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, continued development. But other states, including Maryland and New York, have not permitted drilling because of the potential for environmental and health impacts.

Tensions between economic development, energy policy and environmental and health concerns are common in public health’s history. Often, economic and energy development trump environmental and health concerns, leaving public health playing “catch-up.”

Indeed, only recently have rigorous health studies on the impact of unconventional natural gas development been completed. We have published three studies, which evaluated birth outcomes, asthma exacerbations and symptoms, including nasal and sinus, fatigue and migraine headache symptoms. These, together with other studies, form a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas development is having detrimental effects on health. Not unexpectedly, the oil and gas industry has countered our findings with pointed criticism.

Which exposures and health outcomes to study?

The process of fracking involves vertical and horizontal drilling, often for more than 10,000 feet below the surface, followed by the injection of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressures. The liquids create fissures that release the natural gas in the shale rock.

As fracking became commercially viable, oil and gas drilling companies entered communities with shale gas resources, which can have a number of local effects. Communities near fracking operations can experience noise, light, vibration and truck traffic, as well as air, water and soil pollution. The rapid development of the industry can also lead to social disruption, higher crime rates and anxiety.

These vary during the different phases of well development and have different scales of impact: Vibration may affect only people very close to wells, whereas stress from, for example, concerns about possible water contamination may have a wider reach. Other sources of stress can be an influx of temporary workers, seeing industrial development in what used to be a rural area, heavy truck traffic and concerns about declining home prices.

We have now completed several health studies in partnership with the Geisinger Health System, which provides primary care to over 450,000 patients in Pennsylvania, including many residing in fracking areas. Geisinger has used an electronic health record system since 2001, allowing us to get detailed health data from all patient encounters, including diagnoses, tests, procedures, medications and other treatments during the same time frame as fracking developed.

For our first electronic health record-based studies, we selected adverse birth outcomes and asthma exacerbations. These are important, are common, have short latencies and are conditions patients seek care for, so they are thus well-documented in the electronic health record.

We studied over 8,000 mother-child pairs and 35,000 asthma patients. In our symptom study, we obtained questionnaires from 7,847 patients about nasal, sinus and other health symptoms. Because symptoms are subjective, they are not well-captured by an electronic health record and are better ascertained by questionnaire.

In all studies, we assigned patients measures of unconventional natural gas development activity. These were calculated using distance from the patient’s home to the well, well depth and production and dates and duration of the different phases.

Our findings and how confident we are in them

In the birth outcome study, we found increased odds of preterm birth and suggestive evidence for reduced birth weight among women with higher unconventional natural gas development activity (those closer to more and bigger unconventional wells), compared with women with lower unconventional natural gas development activity during pregnancy.

In the asthma study, we found increased odds among asthma patients of asthma hospitalizations, emergency department visits and a medication used for mild asthma attacks with higher unconventional natural gas development activity, compared to those with lower activity. Finally, in our study of symptoms, we found patients with higher unconventional natural gas development activity had higher odds of nasal and sinus, migraine headache and fatigue symptoms compared to those with lower activity. In each analysis, we controlled for other risk factors for the outcome, including smoking, obesity, and comorbid conditions.

Psychosocial stress, exposure to air pollution including truck traffic, sleep disruption and changes to socioeconomic status are all biologically plausible pathways for unconventional natural gas development to affect health. We hypothesize that stress and air pollution are the two primary pathways, but in our studies, we cannot yet determine which are responsible for the associations we observed.

As epidemiologists, our data can rarely prove that an exposure caused a health outcome. We do, however, perform additional analyses to test if our findings are robust and eliminate the possibility that another factor we did not include was the actual cause.

In our studies, we looked at differences by county to understand whether there were just differences in the people who live in counties with and without fracking. And we repeated our studies with other health outcomes we would not expect to be affected by the fracking industry. In no analyses did we find results that suggested to us that our primary findings were likely to be biased, which gives us confidence in our results.

Other research groups have published on pregnancy and birth outcomes and symptoms, and the evidence suggests that the fracking industry may be affecting health in a range of ways. Over time, the body of evidence has gotten clearer, more consistent and concerning. However, we would not expect all studies to exactly agree, because, for example, the drilling practices, underlying health conditions and other factors likely differ in different study areas.

How has the industry responded?

Often the industry states that unconventional natural gas development has improved air quality. When describing emissions for the entire United States, this may be true. However, such statements ignore studies that suggest fracking has worsened local air quality in areas undergoing unconventional natural gas development.

A common retort by the industry is that rates of the health outcome studied – whether it’s asthma or preterm birth – are lower in fracking areas than in areas without fracking, or that the rate of the outcome is decreasing over time.

A study of increases or decreases in rates of a disease across years, calculated for groups of people, is called an ecologic study. Ecologic studies are less informative than studies with data on individual people because relationships can exist at the group level that do not exist among individuals. This is called the ecologic fallacy. For example, ecologic studies show a negative association between county-level average radon levels and lung cancer rates, but studies of individuals show strong positive associations between exposure to radon gas and lung cancer.

One reason we used individual-level data in our peer-reviewed studies was to avoid the problem of the ecologic fallacy. So the rates highlighted by industry do not provide any evidence that our findings are invalid.

It’s worth noting that the fracking industry’s practices have improved. One example is the flaring of wells, which is a source of air, noise and light pollution, and has decreased dramatically in recent years. Drilling has also substantially slowed because of the dramatic decline in natural gas prices.

What to consider for the future

All energy choices have positive and negative aspects. Maryland in particular has a decision to make, as its moratorium on fracking ends in October 2017.

We must monitor the industry with ongoing health studies and perform more detailed exposure measurements by, for example, measuring noise and air pollution levels. If we understand why we are seeing associations between the fracking industry and health problems, then we can better inform patients and policymakers.

In the meantime, we would advise careful deliberation about future decisions about the industry to balance energy needs with environmental and public health considerations. (2)

How’s that for journalist integrity? Let an agenda-driven charlatan just plaster a story on your wire service, to be picked up by any newspaper across the country.

What’s really going on with this latest attempt to smear Marcellus Shale fracking? We have to turn to someone with a brain, Tom Shepstone, for the answer:

[The] 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 InstituteLook 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 outdoors. Additionally, 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.

What we have with this study is something one finds in many ideological diatribes; too complicated to decipher formulas intended to create a scientific facade for nothing more than speculation based on preconceived beliefs. There is nothing there. Not only is there no evidence of causation, but the failure to consider smoking, highway traffic and urban development are fatal flaws. The map alone is the ultimate proof of its junk science status. The entire series of reports done by Schwartz and his cohorts is one continuous stream of junk science, in fact. It’s giving me fatigue. But, that’s what one might expect from the “peak oil” fellowFellow at the Post Carbon Institute, isn’t it?

(1) Harrisburg & Philadelphia (PA) StateImpact Pennsylvania (Aug 25, 2016) – New study links gas drilling to migraines, fatigue and chronic sinus symptoms

(2) UPI/Sara G. Rasmussen, Brian S. Schwartz, Johns Hopkins University, and Joan A. Casey (Aug 25, 2016) – Fracking & health: What we know from Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom

(3) Natural Gas Now/Tom Shepstone (Aug 25, 2016) – Post Carbon Institute Fellow Takes Another Run at Fracking