Does Fracking Hurt Babies?

What the frack! A new study from Pennsylvania claims fracking at well sites leads to negative outcomes for babies who are born nearby. Sounds scary! Except that research done on the research demonstrates the “study” is riddled with problems in methodology and poor data. The study was also funded by the anti-industry activist group the MacArthur Foundation.

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If the media reports on a new study that reveals something dangerous, do you believe it? I don’t. Not until I’ve had a chance to do some research on the research.

Case in point: A new study proclaims there is a strong link between low birth weight babies and hydraulic fracturing. The conclusions of the researchers sound ominous, until, that is, you get a look at the poor methodology, contradictory data and even non-existent data within the report. The study claims that babies born within a few kilometers of a hydraulically fractured shale gas well were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight, which can lead to asthma, attention deficit disorder, poor school performance, eventual high rates of social welfare participation and even death.

Pretty scary, right? Well, the fear-factor drops rapidly once you actually get into the data, which is exactly what industry trade group Energy In Depth did when the findings of this study were announced.

For starters, the authors concede that their findings may have absolutely nothing to do with fracking. That’s because the Pennsylvania mothers who were studied were, “younger, less likely to have been married at the time they gave birth, and less educated—characteristics that might lead to worse infant health outcomes even in the absence of fracturing.”

In other words, they picked young, unwed mothers who were already at high risk of having low birth weight babies. And, by the way, they didn’t even bother to control for smoking, something that is common for young women in this category and can lead to underweight births. And that’s only the beginning of the study’s problems.

The researchers admitted that they focused on “potential exposure to pollution (which is determined by the mother’s residential location) rather than actual exposure that could be measured with personal monitoring devices.” Put more plainly, they relied on assumptions of possible exposure to potential pollution, or some kind of approximation of that.

There are several other not-so-small problems in this so-called study identified by Energy in Depth. Most notably, in the absence of actual scientific measurements and proof of exposure, the researchers relied on a single, flawed study to support their premise that emissions from oil and natural gas production sites exceed public health thresholds. Not coincidentally, the researchers chose to ignore numerous studies that reached the exact opposite conclusion.

If you’re getting the sense that this research might be tainted by potential bias or an anti-industry agenda, that’s understandable. As it turns out, one of the study’s major funders was the MacArthur Foundation—an organization that makes no apologies for its anti-oil and natural gas agenda. The MacArthur Foundation has given Earthworks and the Natural Resources Defense Council $10 million since 1978.

Those activist groups are on a mission to ban hydraulic fracturing. Oh yeah, I should also mention, new—credible—research based on Pennsylvania Department of Health data show that infant mortality rates have declined in the most heavily drilled counties in the Marcellus since shale development began. And, they declined more than in any other part of the state.

So what’s the lesson here? Before you become frightened by scary headlines about fracking or anything else for that matter, do a little research on the research. You’ll sleep better.

Power On, America.

View Sources
  • Energy in Depth analysis of study claiming a possible link between hydraulic fracturing and infant health issues.
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  • Study by Janey Currie, Michael Greenstone and Katherine Meckel claiming a possible link between hydraulic fracturing and infant health issues.
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  • Data from the MacArthur Foundation on money given to the National Resources Defense Council, an anti oil/gas/coal activist group.
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  • Data from the MacArthur Foundation on money given to Earthworks, an anti oil/gas/coal anti-fracking activist group.
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  • Study claiming emissions from oil and natural gas production exceed public health thresholds. This study is contradicted by numerous studies that have made the exact opposite determination. In this study the authors concede that “the chemicals reported in this exploratory study cannot, however, be causally connected to natural gas operations.”
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  • Energy in Depth compilation of studies that refute the study mentioned directly above.
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  • News report on the study by Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Gazette.
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