Fracking: Gas drilling's environmental threat and some latest studies

ProPublica surveys some recent research on potential health implications of hydro fracking

For years, environmentalists and the gas drilling industry have been in a pitched battle over the possible health implications of hydro fracking. But to a great extent, the debate — as well as the emerging lawsuits and the various proposed regulations in numerous states — has been hampered by a shortage of science.

In 2011, when ProPublica first reported on the different health problems afflicting people living near gas drilling operations, only a handful of health studies had been published. Three years later, the science is far from settled, but there is a growing body of research to consider.

Below, ProPublica offers a survey of some of that work. The studies included are by no means a comprehensive review of the scientific literature. There are several others that characterize the chemicals in fracking fluids, air emissions and waste discharges. Some present results of community level surveys.

Yet, a long-term systematic study of the adverse effects of gas drilling on communities has yet to be undertaken. Researchers have pointed to the scarcity of funding available for large-scale studies as a major obstacle in tackling the issue.

A review of health-related studies published last month in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that the current scientific literature puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address.”

Still, for some, waiting for additional science to clarify those uncertainties before adopting more serious safeguards is misguided and dangerous. As a result, a number of researchers and local activists have been pushing for more aggressive oversight immediately.


The industry, by and large, has regarded the studies done to date — a number of which claim to have found higher rates of illness among residents living close to drilling wells — as largely anecdotal and less than convincing.

“The public health sector has been absent from this debate,” said Nadia Steinzor, a researcher on the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at the environmental non-profit, Earthworks.

Departments of health have only become involved in states such as New York and Maryland where regulators responded to the public’s insistence on public health and environmental reviews before signing off on fracking operations. The states currently have a moratorium on fracking.

New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah is in fact conducting a review of health studies to present to Governor Andrew Cuomo before he makes a decision on whether to allow fracking in the state. It is unclear when the results of the review will be publicly available.

Other states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, however, have been much more supportive of the gas industry. For instance, Texas has been granting permits for fracking in ever increasing numbers while at the same time the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that monitors air quality, has had its budget cut substantially.

1. An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2012.

The study, performed in Garfield County, Colo., between July 2010 and October 2011, was done by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that examines the impact of low-level exposure to chemicals on the environment and human health.

In the study, researchers set up a sampling station close to a well and collected air samples every week for 11 months, from when the gas wells were drilled to after it began production. The samples produced evidence of 57 different chemicals, 45 of which they believe have some potential for affecting human health.

In almost 75 percent of all samples collected, researchers discovered methylene chloride, a toxic solvent that the industry had not previously disclosed as present in drilling operations. The researchers noted that the greatest number of chemicals were detected during the initial drilling phase.

While this study did catalogue the different chemicals found in air emissions from gas drilling operations, it did not address exposure levels and their potential effects. The levels found did not exceed current safety standards, but there has been much debate about whether the current standards adequately address potential health threats to women, children and the elderly.

The researchers admitted their work was compromised by their lack of full access to the drilling site. The air samples were collected from a station close to what is known as the well pad, but not the pad itself.

The gas drilling industry has sought to limit the disclosure of information about its operations to researchers. They have refused to publicly disclose the chemicals that are used in fracking, won gag orders in legal cases and restricted the ability of scientists to get close to their work sites. In a highly publicized case last year, a lifelong gag order was imposed on two children who were parties to a legal case that accused one gas company of unsafe fracking operations that caused them to fall sick.

In 2009, the Independent Petroleum Association of America started Energy In Depth, a blog that confronts activists who are fighting to ban fracking and challenges research that in any way depicts fracking as unsafe.

Energy In Depth Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.and criticized its lack of proper methodology. The blog post also questioned the objectivity of the researchers, asserting that their “minds were already made up.”

The industry has also been performing its own array of studies.

Last year, for instance, an industry-funded study on the methane emissions from fracking wells was published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that only very modest amounts of methane — a known contributor to climate change — was being emitted into the air during fracking operations.

The study came under heavy criticism from Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, who two years prior had published work that claimed methane emissions from shale gas operations were far more significant.

“This study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry,” he said.

2. Birth Outcomes and Natural Gas Development. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.

The study examined babies born from 1996 to 2009 in rural Colorado locations — the state has been a center of fracking for more than a decade. It was done by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University.

The study asserted that women who lived close to gas wells were more likely to have children born with a variety of defects, from oral clefts to heart issues. For instance, it claimed that babies born to mothers who lived in areas dense with gas wells were 30 percent more likely to have congenital heart defects.

The researchers, however, were unable to include data on maternal health, prenatal care, genetics and a host of other factors that have been shown to increase the risk of birth defects because that information was not publicly available. A common criticism of many scientific studies is that they do not fully analyze the possibility of other contributing factors.

The study has thus come under attack from both the industry and state public health officials. In a statement, Dr. Larry Wolk, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, said “people should not rush to judgment” as “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” in the study.

But Lisa McKenzie, one of the lead authors of the study, said there was value to the work.

“What I think this is telling us is that we need to do more research to tease out what is happening and to see if these early studies hold up when we do more rigorous research,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, Elaine Hill, a graduate student at Cornell University, obtained data on gas wells and births between 2003 and 2010. She then compared birth weights of babies born in areas of Pennsylvania where a well had been permitted but never drilled and areas where wells had been drilled. Hill found that the babies born to mothers within 2.5 kilometers (a little over 1.5 miles) of drilled gas sites were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight compared to those in non-drilled areas. Babies are considered as having low birth weight if they are under 2500 grams (5.5 pounds).

Hill’s work is currently under review by a formal scientific journal, a process that could take three or four years.

3. Health Risks and Unconventional Natural Gas Resources. Science of the Total Environment, 2012.

Between January 2008 and November 2010, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health collected air samples in Garfield County, Colo., which has been experiencing intensive drilling operations. Researchers found the presence of a number of hydrocarbons including benzene, trimethylbenzene and xylene, all of which have been shown to pose health dangers at certain levels.

Researchers maintained that those who lived less than half a mile from a gas well had a higher risk of health issues. The study also found a small increase in cancer risk and alleged that exposure to benzene was a major contributor to the risk.

“From the data we had, it looked like the well completion phase was the strongest contributor to these emissions,” said Lisa McKenzie, the lead author of the study.

During the completion phase of drilling, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down the well at high pressure, and is then brought back up. The returning mixture, which contains radioactive materials and some of the natural gas from the geological formation, is supposed to be captured. But at times the mixture comes back up at pressures higher than the system can handle and the excess gas is directly vented into the air.

“I think we ought to be focused on the whole thing from soup to nuts because a lot of the potential hazards aren’t around the hydraulic fracturing step itself,” said John Adgate, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health and co-author on the study.

Energy In Depth, the industry blog, responded at length to this study and cited several “bad inputs” which had affected the results of the study. The researchers’ assumptions and data were criticized. For instance, the researchers had assumed that Garfield residents would remain in the county until the age of 70 in order to estimate the time period over which they would be exposed to the emissions.

“Unless the ‘town’ is actually a prison, this is a fundamentally flawed assumption about the length and extent of exposure,” Energy In Depth said.




As full disclosure nears, doctors’ pay for drug talks plummets

As transparency increases and blockbuster drugs lose patent protection, drug companies have dramatically scaled back payments to doctors for promotional talks. This fall, all drug and medical device companies in the US will be required to report payments to doctors

Some of the US’ largest pharmaceutical companies have slashed payments to health professionals for promotional speeches amid heightened public scrutiny of such spending, a new ProPublica analysis shows.

Eli Lilly and Co.’s payments to speakers dropped by 55 percent, from $47.9 million in 2011 to $21.6 million in 2012.

Pfizer’s speaking payments fell 62 percent over the same period, from nearly $22 million to $8.3 million.

And Novartis, the largest U.S. drug maker as measured by 2012 sales, spent 40 percent less on speakers that year than it did between October 2010 and September 2011, reducing payments from $24.8 million to $14.8 million.

The sharp declines coincide with increased attention from regulators, academic institutions and the public to pharmaceutical company marketing practices. A number of companies have settled federal whistleblower lawsuits in recent years that accused them of improperly marketing their drugs.

In addition, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, a part of the 2010 health reform law, will soon require all pharmaceutical and medical device companies to publicly report payments to physicians. The first disclosures required under the act are expected in September and will cover the period of August to December 2013.

Within the industry, some companies are reevaluating the role of physician speakers in their marketing repertoire. GlaxoSmithKline announced in December that it would stop paying doctors to speak on behalf of its drugs. Its speaking tab plummeted from $24 million in 2011 to $9.3 million in 2012.

Not all companies have cut speaker payments: Johnson and Johnson increased such spending by 17 percent from 2011 to 2012; AstraZeneca’s payments stayed about flat in 2012 after a steep decline the previous year.

ProPublica has been tracking publicly reported payments by drug companies since 2010 as part of its Dollars for Docs project. Users can search for their doctors to see if they have received compensation from the 15 companies that make such information available online.  (We’ve just updated our application to include payments made through the end of 2012, totaling $2.5 billion. Forest Labs, which only began reporting in 2012, reported speaking payments of $40 million, more than any other company in Dollars for Docs.)

Some companies in the database said their declines have less to do with the Sunshine Act and more to do with the loss of patent protection for key products. Lilly, for example, began facing generic competition to its blockbuster antipsychotic Zyprexa in late 2011. Its antidepressant Cymbalta lost its patent at the end of 2013.

“The value of educational programs tends to be higher when we’re launching a new medicine or we have new clinical data/new indication,” Lilly spokesman J. Scott MacGregor said in an email, adding that the drop in speaking payments also reflects the increased use of web conferencing.

Pfizer’s patent on Lipitor, its top-selling cholesterol drug, expired in 2011.

“Like any other company, our business practices must adapt to the changing nature of our product portfolio, based in part on products going off patent and new products being introduced into the market,” company spokesman Dean Mastrojohn said in an email.


Novartis’ patent for its breast cancer drug Femara expired in 2011, its hypertension drug Diovan in 2012 and its cancer drug Zometa in 2013. In a statement, Novartis said that speaking payments dropped in 2012, in part, because of a shift from big blockbuster drugs that many doctors prescribe toward specialty products prescribed by fewer physicians. Resources were also shifted “to support potential future product launches.”

The industry’s increased emphasis on expensive specialty medications for such conditions as multiple sclerosis or Hepatitis C, has been striking, said Aaron Kesselheim, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. A piece in the New England Journal of Medicine last week noted that half of the 139 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration since 2009 were for rare diseases and cancers.

 “It’s possible the number of physicians they need to support sales of these items is less, leading to lower payments overall,” Kesselheim said.

In some cases, companies maintained or made smaller cuts to other forms of physician compensation while pulling back dramatically on speaking payments.  Pfizer’s spending on consultants dropped 9 percent from 2011 to 2012, far less than its payments to speakers. The company’s spending on research stayed essentially the same.

Lilly increased spending on physician researchers by more than 20 percent, while reducing payments to consultants by more than two-thirds.

Many bioethicists and leaders of major academic medical centers frown upon physicians delivering promotional talks for drug companies, saying they turn doctors into sales representatives rather than leaders in research and patient care.

Officials with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry trade group, dispute this characterization. They said they are working with their member companies to prepare for the Sunshine Act and have created a campaign to promote the value of drug company-doctor collaborations.

“Companies will make their own independent decisions about how to engage professionals,” said Kendra Martello, PhRMA’s deputy vice president of strategic operations.

Scott Liebman, an attorney who advises pharmaceutical companies on the Sunshine Act, said it’s too early to know how much the law’s requirements are affecting company practices, in part because it’s so new. The fact that some companies are cutting back on speaking while preserving their spending on research and consulting suggests that other business forces could be at play, he added.

“It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly why that’s happening,” Liebman said. “I think there’s a lot of potential answers to that. I just don’t know which is the right one.”




R Balakrishnan

4 years ago

A very senior friend of mine, in the pharma industry- says that the position of the 'medical' reps should be done away with- Pharma cos can use the net and the doctors should be made to give annual exams to see that they are up to date with latest developments- New drugs can be sent in the form of mailers to doctors- This could reduce drug prices by thirty percent at least

Hydrogen-fuelled cars: A new road rage

In California, hydrogen-fuelled cars are gaining in popularity. Will their safety issues garner greater scrutiny?

It was just before 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and traffic was moving smoothly on the Pomona Freeway, about 20 miles outside downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, a truck carrying compressed hydrogen caught fire, and by the time the local fire department had arrived on the scene, two of the hydrogen tanks had begun venting gas, and flames had engulfed the truck’s cab.

It took almost seven hours for firefighters, working with a mix of chemicals and water, to end the threat.

“It had the full spectrum of colors,” Captain Will Pryor of the Los Angeles County Fire Department recalled of the fire on Nov. 14, 2013. “It’s like a log in a fire. You’d have blue parts of it. Orange parts of it.”

“There is a school nearby, there are multiple residences nearby, apartment buildings, office buildings,” Pryor said. “They were all in a half-mile blast radius, what was reported would be the blast radius of hydrogen.”

In the end, there were no casualties, and the worst-case scenario was avoided. But as California expands its use of hydrogen-fuelled cars and builds out its infrastructure for servicing those cars, more hydrogen is going to be trucked around.

Later this year, 1,000 of Hyundai’s hydrogen-fuelled cars will go on sale in California, and Toyota has announced plans for a commercial model to go on sale in 2015. Ford, Daimler, Nissan, General Motors and Honda have also announced plans for partnerships on hydrogen fuel cell technologies. The California Air Resources Board has projected that there will be over 50,000 electric and hydrogen cars in California by 2018.

California Gov. Jerry Brown last year agreed to devote more than $2 billion over the next decade to build 100 additional hydrogen fuelling stations. The state currently has 23 active stations.

Hydrogen as a fuel source is an attractive proposition mainly because it doesn’t emit toxic, heat-trapping pollutants the way gasoline does. An analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that for a mid-size SUV, the total greenhouse gas emissions from using hydrogen as a fuel is at worst half that for gasoline.

However, hydrogen poses several other risks that gasoline does not. It is highly flammable, and can ignite more easily than other fuels. Hydrogen is also colorless and odorless, making it difficult to readily detect leaks.

Environmental and regulatory experts have long worried about the threat posed by the vast array of dangerous materials daily being moved across the country, from nuclear waste to pesticides and compressed gases.

“As far as the aggregate risk that is presented to the American public, I don’t think it’s going to change significantly,” said Carl Southwell, a risk analyst who studies infrastructure and chemical risks. “But there will be slightly more risk to first responders and people near the hydrogen fire.”

A ProPublica review of voluntarily submitted data collected by the Department of Energy does show there have been some problems with hydrogen infrastructure nationally.

There have been 37 recorded “events” in recent years involving hydrogen trucks or fuelling stations. Of the 22 events recorded at fuelling stations, hydrogen was released in a dozen of them, and twice the releases resulted in fires. Fires occurred in five of the 15 recorded events involving hydrogen trucks.

At the moment, the transport of hydrogen is monitored by both state and federal agencies. The federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), says it requires various types of documentation and labelling for shipments of hydrogen and training for employees involved in its transport.

However, there have been recent reports —one by an inspector general with the federal Department of Transportation — asserting that the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded. A senior agency official recently conceded as much, saying funding from Congress had dried up and that the regulatory process he oversees was “kind of dying.”

Gordon Delcambre Jr., a PHMSA spokesman, told ProPublica that the agency ensures compliance of hazardous materials shippers and carriers by conducting unannounced inspections. But he acknowledged that federal regulations do not actually require such inspections or mandate how often they should occur.

ProPublica determined that the agency’s western office, which is responsible for 12 states, has just seven inspectors.

Warnings about the transport and use of dangerous materials of all kinds have been sounded for years. In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is in charge of enforcing regulations for cargo trucks and interstate buses, called for changes in its operations to meet the rise in vehicles that used hydrogen.

“The [current] regulations do not consider safety systems and equipment required for commercial vehicles using hydrogen as an alternative fuel,” the authors of the report said. But to date, the FMCSA has not made changes to include separate inspection procedures and regulations for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Quon Kwan, who helped compile the report at the FMCSA, said he was hopeful that more action would be taken in spite of the fact that the number of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the roads today are a “drop in the bucket” when set against the millions of diesel-powered trucks the agency is responsible for regulating.

Chief Jan Dunbar at the California Office of Emergency Services downplayed the challenge any increase in hydrogen transport and use might present to first responders.

“There’s nothing special about hydrogen that sets it apart from any other flammable gas,” he said.

California’s Office of the State Fire Marshal does have a 16-hour emergency response training program for alternative fuels vehicles. The curriculum allocates one hour to the discussion of hydrogen. But fire departments aren’t required to provide the course to their firefighters. Since the program was started in 2009, four classroom sessions have been conducted, each with 44 students. The manual for the program is also available for download on the State Fire Marshal’s website.

We have it available to departments. It’s whether or not they choose to access that,” said one instructor at the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Jennifer Hamilton, an education specialist at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, said she has been delivering hundreds of workshops on hydrogen fuel cells to firefighters.
Currently, the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the Department of Energy are the two main organizations with outreach programs to educate firefighters on the properties of hydrogen and the working of hydrogen cars.

Hamilton estimates that her workshops have reached more than 5000 firefighters so far, but is quick to clarify that they do not qualify as true training.

“Training implies that there is some sort of certificate or credits and an approved curriculum,” she said. “We don’t give anything like that. Our program is at the information or awareness level.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Gov. Jerry Brown had agreed to spend over $2 billion on hydrogen fueling stations. Gov. Brown has allocated $2 billion for clean-vehicle incentives over the next ten years. $20 million a year has been set aside specifically for hydrogen-fueling stations.




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