There’s a lot of shoddy science claiming to show the public health impact of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking.” Studies alleging birth defects for children born near oil and gas wells, higher incidences of cancer-causing chemicals, and respiratory illnesses have grabbed headlines across the country, but how credible are these studies, and do the headlines actually match what the studies say?
Sensationalized headlines are nothing new, and news outlets have become especially adept at reporting the findings of scientific studies out of context. Scientists, to some degree, have been all-too-happy to help headline writers with provocative press releases, because the “publish or perish” philosophy pressures academics at research institutions to publish studies or else face termination or denial of tenure.
This has cultivated an environment rich with data-dredging studies that seek to find alarming results, and this is equally true for studies examining the potential health effects of fracking as it is for studies that assert, according to one reputable magazine, “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer.” Sadly, the results are often just as credible.
A recent report published by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health attempted to determine whether living next to a fracking well causes higher incidences of asthma attacks in Pennsylvania. The theory behind the study was particulates, or perhaps even stress, could cause more incidences in asthma attacks. Scientists examined the electronic health records of tens of thousands of asthma patients treated at the Geisinger Clinic from 2005 to 2012 to see if there is a correlation between proximity to a fracking well and asthma.
Correlation, however, is not causation, and the authors of the paper readily admitted their study does not prove a direct link between fracking and higher incidences of asthma or more-severe asthma symptoms. Unfortunately, this fact was lost on numerous media outlets who published stories with alarming headlines trumping up the relationship between asthma and fracking.
Also, it’s notable the Johns Hopkins study did not look at the difference between asthma rates in counties that did not have shale development. This is important because control groups are necessary to determine whether fracking is causing increased incidences of asthma-related hospitalization. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health show counties in the state that have experienced a lot of fracking-related drilling have lower age-adjusted rates of asthma-linked hospitalizations than urban counties, and the data show these fracking-heavy counties have similar rates of hospitalization as rural counties without fracking do. Not exactly a smoking gun.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers did find more serious cases of asthma in people who were smokers, obese, and the elderly—all characteristics that have been shown in a number of research studies to contribute to asthma attacks.
The recent asthma study is not the only one to garner unnecessarily alarming headlines from news outlets. Other data-dredging studies that have suggested fracking could be causing negative health impacts have been found to be equally untrustworthy, because they attempt to attribute illnesses to pollution—even though no real-world data collection has occurred that could determine if actual pollution existed in the first place. This is like accusing your neighbor’s dog of giving you allergies without actually checking to see if your neighbor ever had a dog in the first place.
This problem is the result of three factors. First, Scientists want to get published. Second, scientists want the studies they publish to get a lot of press in order to get more funding for future studies. Third, modern readers in the United States have short attention spans; they read headlines, and that’s about it. News organizations know this, so they make scary headlines with the hope their readers click on story links to boost ad revenue.
Mark Twain once wrote, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” This is especially true if you only read today’s headlines about fracking.