One of the more frustrating things about modern life is the frequency with which the non-scientific public is bombarded by studies purporting to show the health-related effects of various environmental or nutritional factors. The fact is, there is little most of us can make of such information – and even less we should use as a basis to influence public policy.
Case in point: A University of Colorado study, led by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health, was released last week that said that babies born to mothers living within 10 miles of natural-gas wells in Colorado are at an elevated risk of suffering birth defects.
That is disturbing news. But what made the study all the more remarkable was that, although it relied on state health department records, Colorado’s Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk immediately, and publicly, warned that “people should not rush to judgment.”
Wolk knocked the study’s design and listed its limitations. He said it did not factor in the quality of prenatal care, maternal drinking or smoking, whether nearby wells were active, or how long and when the women lived near wells.
The study counted only where the mother lived when the child was born. It did not track women who may have lived near wells early in their pregnancies, when the danger of birth defects is greater and then moved before giving birth.
The measured proximity to wells is also unclear. At one point, the report talks about mothers “living near an area of more than 125 wells per mile,” while it also looks at those living “within 10 miles of natural gas wells.”
Those are dissimilar standards. The first is essentially in the gas patch. The second probably includes most of the population of La Plata County. It is hard to see how they relate to each other – or to much of anything else.
The problem with such studies is that they are tough to do thoroughly and accurately – and extraordinarily easy to misunderstand, misconstrue and misuse. Some seemingly impressive reports – impressive in that their findings are popular with some readers – are clearly no more than marketing efforts. Others are too closely aligned either to an industry or an advocacy group to be believable. And all are subject to the general public’s propensity to confuse correlation with causation; the all-too-human tendency to believe that if A happens before B, A must have caused B; and journalists’ seemingly congenital difficulty with math.
Most studies, probably including the CU study on fracking, are, in some ways, imperfect. But in all likelihood, most also include valuable information worthy of further investigation. And that should proceed.
The gas industry, fracking and all, is too important to Colorado, the nation and the environment to dismiss with one clearly flawed study. But by the same token, human life and good health are too precious to ignore completely the disturbing findings of the CU and other studies.
Allowing or encouraging local governments to enact their own rules banning drilling or fracking, however, is not the answer. As a rule, those entities have neither the expertise nor the recourses adequately to monitor or properly oversee such operations.
What is needed is not more hype or strident complaints but more and better work in researching and gathering answers. That is not a formula for flashy headlines, but in the end, it should yield superior results.