Tuesday’s editorial in The Durango Herald, “Fracking flap,” correctly pointed out the common confusion with interpreting scientific studies by the lay public. Much of the rest of the editorial, unfortunately, only added to the confusion.
The editorial’s second line, and much of the argument put forward, says scientific studies should not be used “as a basis to influence public policy.” The logic that just because scientific studies can be misconstrued it negates their import for decision-makers does not hold.
The Herald followed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in critiquing a study by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University, Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado, published in Environmental Health Perspectives and available on the journal’s website.
What both Larry Wolk, head of the Department of Public Health, and the Herald did was three things: misconstrue the study; attack the study from their own misconstruction; and attack the scientists, and the use of science, for helping to inform the public debate about fracking.
The concern people who live in the oil and gas patch have about the potential health impacts of the wells and other facilities is not new, nor is this the first study that has shown this concern may be well placed.
Oil and gas development is without a doubt a source of a whole variety of air pollutants, pollutants that are known to have health impacts. The debate is whether those pollutants are at levels that have impacts for the people in the patch.
The actual study looked at “associations between maternal residential proximity to NGD (natural gas development) and birth outcomes ...” It found “an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells” and two birth defects.
Part of the confusion is found in the word “association,” which many have taken to mean, in the Herald’s words, “that babies ... are at an elevated risk of ... birth defects.” That is not what the study concluded.
The Herald and Larry Wolk are not the only ones to jump to this misinterpretation. Some folks fighting oil and gas development in their communities also read more into the study than it was meant to, or did, elucidate. That is no excuse, especially for Wolk and the Department of Public Health.
From this inaccurate reading, Wolk immediately went on a public denunciation of the study and the researchers. He pointed to their methods as weak, and the study’s limitations, to challenge conclusions the authors did not make. Wolk made the study into a political football, misinformed the people of Colorado and made a mockery of his position as Colorado’s chief medical officer.
Unfortunately, this is not surprising but rather the norm from the Hickenlooper administration, which has become a cheerleader and advocate for the industry rather than an arbiter or source of neutral information.
The researchers on the other hand deserve respect and thanks from everyone on both sides of the fracking debate. What is greatly needed is good science focused on whether oil and gas development has public health impacts. Without this information we will continue to have only fears and anecdotal evidence on one side and bland assurances of safety on the other.
No one study, ever, will answer the base question of the public health impacts of fracking. Each study will, if done well, advance our understanding and help researchers design the next studies. Science is a process of small, careful steps and insights building on each other, that then can allow larger as well as more specific conclusions to be arrived at.
The study was not “flawed” as the Herald said. It was limited, and did not overstate its findings. It was good science.
It is the political attacks on the study, and even the researchers, that was flawed.
Oil and gas development occurs where people live. It involves the release of pollutants known to have health impacts. People have the right to be concerned. Good science is the best tool we have to learn what we should be concerned with. Then, hopefully, the public and our political leaders can craft proper responses to eliminate or limit those impacts.
By attacking this study, the Herald and Wolk only add to the din of confusion.
email@example.com. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.