Shale panel asks: Does gas development affect public health?

PITTSBURGH – A breakout panel during the 2018 Shale Insight Conference delved into the question: “Is Natural Gas Development Affecting Public Health?”

Christopher Long, a toxicologist and environmental scientist, said the health and air quality study data is still too inconsistent and sparse to say for sure. And Kathy Condo, an energy lawyer, said what’s out there may carry weight in the court of public opinion but isn’t yet solid enough for the court of law.

Long is principal scientist for the environmental research firm Gradient Corp. He presented his own review of air quality studies and a review of epidemiology studies prepared by a another scientist who was unable to attend.

The air study data to date, he said, shows little difference between well pad sites and their surrounding areas and other areas without well pads. Levels of toxic pollutants such as benzene and toluene vary hourly and appear to be no higher than non-fracking areas.

Various factors also call attention to the limits of studies, to date, he said.

What it all means, he said, is that more studies are needed. “It’s a very rapidly evolving body of data.”

Health studies are likewise inconclusive. He presented the review of 20 epidemiology studies – on the possible linkage between exposure and health outcomes – conducted in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Texas. The vast majority were done in Pennsylvania.

Two of five low birth weight studies, he said, showed possible linkage. One of five showed possible linkage to premature births.

But study limitations have to be considered, he said. For instance researchers substituted distance from well pads and number of well pads – called exposure surrogates – for actual exposure data. These assumptions, though, don’t account for terrain, wind and weather. “Does this truly represent exposure?”

They also don’t account for such things as socioeconomic status, he said, or bias of the researchers who sometimes drew unsupportable conclusions from their data.

During a Q&A session, once audience member asked him if anyone has ever studied well pad workers, as that might give a reliable idea of what’s going on. Long said there have been studies – such as by NIOSH – of worker exposure, but none on the health outcomes associated with that exposure.

Long is a shareholder in and Energy and Natural Resources attorney for Babst Calland. She talked about the standards a court requires versus what the public uses to draw its conclusions. She fielded a question on how headlines on fracking health and safety issues play out in the courtroom.

She said that in a courtroom, opinions have to be back up by facts. “What I’m finding is that when evidence must be presented, data must be presented … the data to back up opinions is not there.”