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New Study Tying Low Birth Weights to Fracking Sites is Junk Science


K.J. Rodgers
Crownsville, Maryland  


A new study funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation attempts to link fracking to low birth weights in newborn infants but falls flat.

Once again, we are reading a new study about how fracking is endangering children. Every other year, so it seems, one of these studies comes out and every time it is, in the end, proven to have been just as ridiculous of assertions as the last. Now, it’s low infant birth weights (again), funded (again) by a committee fractivist foundation.

Infant Birth WeightsWe have already seen a study claiming asthma attacks were on the rise in areas where fracking is taking place. It just so happens, though, that  Brian Schwartz, Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, had conducted the study. He’s also a Post Carbon Institute Fellow where one of the mottos is “Busting the Shale Hype.”  In that study, he claimed people living near shale gas wells are 1.5 to 4 times more likely to have an asthma attack. The reality, however, was the areas with the highest concentrations of asthma sufferers had little or no shale gas production. The report even admitted they had no real evidence their speculation was true, but that didn’t keep it out of the fear-inducing headlines, of course, which was the whole point.

Next, they tried to report fracking caused premature births in shale regions. A top-tier biostatistics analysis expert, recognizing the study for what it was, noted the researchers had used bad modeling, ignored estimation errors and hadn’t validated the metrics.

I’m no scientist or even a mathematician, but it doesn’t take a scientist to know you must validate your results: “measure twice – cut once” perhaps in combination with some “Kentucky Windage.” Just as in the case of the asthma study, however, the author, Brian Schwartz, ignored Center for Disease Control data showing the premature birth rate was 11% in areas with wells, compared to the 12% national average.

The newest junk science study in the fractivist arsenal is a study claiming expecting mothers who live within a half-mile a fracking site are 25% more likely to give birth to low-birth-weight infants. Authored by researchers from Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), the study claims to have monitored 1.1 million births from 2004 and 2013. The lead author, Michael Greenstone, is an economist and energy policy researcher for the University of Chicago and claims:

“This study provides the strongest large-scale evidence of a link between the pollution that stems from hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies,”

This study is just as trashy as the premature birth study. The authors failed to account for social, family history, and lifestyle habits of the mothers. They also explored “potential” pollution and not actual exposure. If I were trying to create a causation relationship, I would at least take air samples.

low birth weights

There is no explanation as to why the data show mothers farther away from fracking sites in the 3 km distance category have a higher risk than those who are closer.

The largest flaw of the study, though, is one that contradicts the report’s purpose. The authors claim that the closer a mother lives to a well site, the more likely the infant’s birth weight will be low. However, the study shows mothers at three kilometers away are more likely to be affected than at 2 kilometers!

EnergyInDepth’s Health and Safety post outlines the flaws of the study in detail. Their report also covers how the MacArthur Foundation, an organization that has donated $10 million dollars to Earthworks and the notorious Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). One of the NaturalGasNOW’s commenters, Mark Dye, also notes the following from the study itself:

“The superior data available in Pennsylvania allow us to compare the estimated number of births exposed to the actual number of infants exposed to fracking during gestation. This comparison suggests that the assumption of a uniform distribution of births across counties leads to substantial overestimates of the number of infants born within 1 km of an active well site that was fractured; presumably, this is because fracking occurs in less populated parts of counties where there are fewer births per square kilometer.”

“A limitation of our study is that given the nature of the available data, we are constrained to focus 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.”

“A second limitation of our study is that even starting with the whole population of Pennsylvania births, we end up with a relatively small sample of children who were potentially exposed to fracking; …”

“A third caveat is that the pathway of exposure was not a subject of our study and is not known with certainty.”

I live in a township in the Southern Tier of NY. There are 3,000 people spread out over 47 sq. mi., but 1,000 of them live in a village of 1 sq. mi. Do you think that any measure of social activity is accurate assuming uniform population distribution when the details vary so widely from such an average?

Now added to the small sample population, you assume the potential of exposure and don’t know how it got to the mothers. Was there any attempt to control for how many of the target population living in villages and cities and water or air quality there? What about the effects of smoking, alcohol or drugs, all causes of low birth weights, or did you assume “uniform distribution” for everything.

So, we see the same sorts of problems with this study as with previous ones. Moreover, the study’s authors throw this additional monkey-wrench into the study by touting the shale revolution.

“The growth in unconventional gas production involving hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has transformed the energy landscape, reducing energy prices, decreasing conventional air pollution by displacing coal in electricity generation, disrupting international energy trading arrangements, and increasing the prospects for energy self-sufficiency for the United States.”

The irony of this entire thing cannot be ignored. The study was funded by the anti-gas MacArthur Foundation, is being supported by Wenonah Hauter of the Food and Water Watch, and yet, the authors go on record saying that natural gas is great and, of course, it is because an improved economy is a healthier economy.

What a wild world.

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3 thoughts on “New Study Tying Low Birth Weights to Fracking Sites is Junk Science

  1. If air quality overall is getting better as we frack more yet burn less coal (as they acknowledge), any air quality issues in fracking areas are more than being offset elsewhere.

    However from what I see, the study does not come close to proving the point the author is trying to prove.

  2. I find it interesting that frac opponents do not want to set foot on location to really study what’s going on. I live out there on pad for weeks at a time within a couple hundred feet of 14 – 18 high pressure pump trucks and haven’t developed a wheeze or cough. In fact I have been around frac pumps for 38 years and can flourish by walking a mile or two around the pad during my shift. Why? Air flow. The combustion gases are diluted and greatly reduced with a varying flux and really large volume of air. We aren’t frac’ing in a biodome with no ventilation.

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