Why Don’t We Have Good Data On The Health Effects Of Fracking?


This week the Colorado Senate Appropriations Committee defeated a bill that would have commissioned a study on the health effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state’s Front Range. It was the second time Representative Joann Ginal (D-Front Range) had unsuccessfully proposed a study looking at fracking’s health effects, but she indicated she’ll be bringing it up again next year. Opponents of the study claimed that it was politically motivated and would be biased, and that it would be an unnecessary duplication of existing studies. But they mentioned no specific provisions of the bill that would cause bias, and were not able to provide recent studies on the impact of fracking on public health.

Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch), who opposed the study, told ThinkProgress the “specter of political motivation” made it suspect. McNulty said he was concerned the study wouldn’t be “done in a way that can be scientifically validated,” but did not provide further details. Also of concern was the fact that it would duplicate existing studies, he said, though his office did not provide examples despite requests from ThinkProgress.

A look at the bill itself revealed no obvious cause for concern for drilling advocates. One representative of the environmental community would be present on the study’s advisory committee, balanced out by a representative of the oil and gas industry. But if claims of politicization and duplicated studies don’t hold much water, what could be behind the opposition?

Representative McNulty expressed concern to ThinkProgress that the study would “serve as more of a public opinion survey than something that could be scientifically validated.” This reflects a general preference that drilling advocates have for studies measuring the presence of specific chemicals in the air and water that could cause harm. In their view, measuring symptoms and health outcomes of people living near fracking operations is subject to people’s biases about drilling, and can result in people attributing unrelated health problems to it.

This is similar to the way companies have dealt with lawsuits over fracking’s health effects, asserting that there’s no way to prove they were actually a result of the drilling. And drillers regularly choose to settle lawsuits over health problems stemming from fracking operations, rather than have the effects become public record. But scientists conducting such a study would be tasked with separating out confounding biases. Checking for specific pollutants could leave out the many secret chemicals involved in fracking, and a large portion of existing studies only look at ideal cases, with no spills or leakages, even though those things certainly occur.

A good number of studies look at the impacts of fracking on air and water, measuring the concentrations of toxins and pollutants near drilling sites to determine what long-term health effects are likely to be. Much less common are studies that look directly at the long-term health and quality of life outcomes of nearby residents. A ProPublica assessment of the state of research on fracking’s health effects shows that though there isn’t a lot of research, it’s tended to show some negative impacts from living near hydraulic fracturing sites. And long-term studies on the effects on communities are rare, ProPublica said, because of the scarcity of funding available. With the industry and aligned politicians insisting more studies aren’t necessary, it’s not a surprise.