A Defense of Presenting Fracking Health Risk Data Ahead of Peer review
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A Defense of Presenting Fracking Health Risk Data Ahead of Peer review

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This is a response from Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, to the Dot Earth post “When Publicity Precedes Peer Review in the Fight Over Gas Impacts." More: ...

This is a response from Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, to the Dot Earth post “When Publicity Precedes Peer Review in the Fight Over Gas Impacts." More: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/fracking

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A Defense of Presenting Fracking Health Risk Data Ahead of Peer review A Defense of Presenting Fracking Health Risk Data Ahead of Peer review Document Transcript

  • This is a response from Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence atIthaca College, to the Dot Earth post “When Publicity Precedes Peer Review in theFight Over Gas Impacts”:Your recent blog compares and contrasts the claims made by industry-funded reports onthe risks of fracking with those made by academic scientists who speak about their datain advance of publication. In so doing, you imply there is an equivalency of bias ormotivation.There is not.Polluting industries have long ministered to their particular public relations problems andsought to delay regulatory action (or outright prohibition) by underwriting studies andreports -- and sometimes entire university-based institutes. The resulting publicationsalmost never find serious evidence for harm. In the field of environmental health, werefer to these efforts as "cigarette science."Throughout several decades of the 20th century, for example, the lead paint industryfunded researchers to investigate the effect of their product on the brain development ofchildren. Not surprisingly, this research uncovered few serious problems. At the sametime, the industry denounced independent research that did find serious problems as anti-lead propaganda. (At one point, the industry argued, based on its research, that theproblem was not that the consumption of lead paint made children stupid but that stupidchildren ate paint.)I think filmmaker Josh Fox is exactly right to say, as he does in The Sky is Pink, that gasindustry denials of harm fit into the narrative template of the tobacco story. (We couldalso call it the lead paint story. Or the asbestos story. Or the PCB story. Or the DDTstory. See David Gee, Late Lessons from Early Warnings.)On the other hand, academic researchers who are not on the payroll of industry and whoare trying in good faith to understand the possible public health effects of a newtechnology -- which is being unrolled without advance demonstration of safety -- cansometimes find results that are frightening enough to warrant immediate publicconversation.This is the story of Elaine Hill, the young Ph.D. student from Cornell who has conductedthe first population-based, observational study of the public health effects of fracking.Andrew, I would like you to place yourself in her shoes for a minute.Suppose you took a close look at hospital data on newborn health before and after drillingand fracking operations arrived in communities (in states where the shale gas boom isbooming away). Suppose you mapped the locations of individual gas wells, looked at thedistance between the wells and the homes where the mothers of those babies lived duringtheir pregnancies. Suppose you analyzed the data carefully. Suppose you foundsignificant effects -- bigger even than the impact of cigarette smoking on newborn health.
  • Suppose you took every care to eliminate confounding variables and still believed thatyou had evidence to suggest that newborn babies were being harmed by frackingoperations. At the very least, your research seems to raise serious questions in urgentneed of answers.Now suppose that you happen to live in a state where fracking is not allowed. Suppose itappears, however, that the governor of your state is giving every indication that he ispreparing to life the moratorium -- even though no a priori attempt has been made toevaluate the impact of fracking on public health.Suppose it becomes clear that the governor is going to make his decision before yourresearch can wend its way through the peer review process and get published.Suppose youve already presented your findings at two academic conferences and in oneposter presentation and that it has been warmly received by your academic colleagues.Suppose you have an opportunity to present your research to the public -- and to yourstates senators -- in advance of the governors decision.Would you take it? Could you look at yourself in the mirror if you did not? And wouldyou sabotage your academic career if you did?Let me say clearly -- as I did in my own Senate testimony -- that I was the one whosuggested to Elaine that she consider testifying. As you quoted me in saying, I think shemade a brave and ethical decision.At the same time, let me also say -- and I think I speak for Elaine Hill as well -- that Im abig believer in peer review. Most academic researchers are. But there cant be doublestandards. If peer review is required for all public utterances and assertions about thepossible environmental and health effects of fracking, then lets strip all the non-peerreview studies from the 1,537-page planning document for fracking -- the supplementalgeneric environmental impact statement (sGEIS) -- that is the science on which will restGovernor Cuomos upcoming decision to permit or prohibit fracking.If we need to wait for data to be peer reviewed before we act on it -- which is a great idea-- then we need to maintain New Yorks moratorium on fracking while Hills data, and theother health effects studies now in the planning stage, make their way into a peer-reviewed journals. The sGEIS itself needs to be sent out for peer review.If the Governor permits fracking on the basis of an sGEIS full of unvetted, un-peer-reviewed data, then he cant say the decision was based on science.Right?Andrew, take a close look at sGEISs references. If all the non-peer reviewed citationswere removed from the analysis and its bibliographies, I estimate that the document
  • would be 60-80 percent shorter. At least.I especially invite you and your readers to examine the bibliographic entries for thesection of the sGEIS entitled, “Human Health Risk Evaluation for Hydraulic FracturingAdditives.” Not one medical journal or peer-review study informs the conclusion thatpublic health risk assessments are unnecessary. Instead, what lies behind the documentsdismissive assertion that exposure pathway are geological impossibilities is a list ofindustry journal articles and "fact sheets." Not peer-reviewed data.Tellingly, the first item in that bibliography is a document from the petroleum industry.The revised draft sGEIS is the worst scientific review Ive ever seen.I’ve served on President Clinton’s National Action Plan on Breast Cancer and as scienceadvisor to a couple of public research initiatives, including the California Breast CancerResearch Program. I’ve testified before the President’s Cancer Panel, helped reviewliterature while in residence at Cornell Universitys Program on Breast Cancer andEnvironmental Risk Factors, and am a co-editor of the University of Californiareport Identifying Gaps in Breast Cancer Research(http://cbcrp.org/sri/reports/identifyingGaps/GAPS_full.pdf), which is a 510-page, fully-referenced science review.In all cases, I spent a lot of time looking at peer-reviewed data. Indeed, during the twoyears I worked on the mammoth California breast cancer report, all the chapters I edited-- which were based on peer-reviewed studies -- were themselves sent out for peerreview. And then they were revised and re-edited.This is not even close to the process that has guided the creation of the sGEIS.So, if -- on the grounds that it is bad form to present data in advance of peer review -- youcriticize my decision to encourage Elaine Hill to present, before a panel of New Yorksenators, her preliminary research on the impact of drilling and tracking operations oninfant health, then I also expect to hear from you a call to withdraw the un-peer-reviewedsGEIS on the grounds that it is not science.The wheels of scientific proof-making grind slowly and with discernment. The decisionto roll out drilling and fracking across the nation proceeds at the frenzied andundiscerning pace of a gold rush. What would you have us researchers do? Stay silentuntil our data appears in print -- even if we have reason to believe that lives are at risk? Or insert ourselves into the political process?It would help all concerned -- not the least of whom are newborns -- if journalists likeyou would call on the political decision-making to slow down so that the science cancatch up rather than attack researchers who choose to speak their conscience rather thanremain silent in the face of a headlong rush to drill and frack.
  • Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D.Distinguished Scholar in ResidenceDepartment of Environmental StudiesIthaca CollegeIthaca, New YorkHer testimony is posted separately here.