Researchers Retract Findings Regarding The Health Risks Of Fracking
By Paul Homewood
From Breaking Energy:
On March 26, 2015, nine researchers published a study in the Environmental Science and Technology journal entitled “Impact of Natural Gas Extraction on PAH Levels in Ambient Air.” The study concluded that there may be a link between hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and an increased risk of cancer. According to one of the authors, “Air pollution from fracking operations may pose an under-recognized health hazard to people living near them.”
At the time of publication, the Independent Petroleum Association of America raised concerns about the study’s objectivity and methods:
To sum up, the study’s volunteers were spearheaded by a known anti-fracking group; the report completely ignores the likely higher-than-normal emissions from other sources; and, the researchers even admit that their work is “not statistically significant” because their sample size was too small and not random. Instead of garnering headlines promoting fear, the report should be notable for its glaring gaps in research.
On June 29, 2016—more than a year after publication—the authors retracted the study after discovering a calculation error. “PAH air concentrations reported in the original article are . . . incorrect. Correcting this error changes air concentrations significantly relative to those reported in the published article . . . [and] some of the conclusions reported in the original article.”
A May 13, 2015 article entitled “Fracking may affect air quality, human health” remains online in its original form. A second article “Fracking may cause air pollution, respiratory issues” now contains an “update” reflecting the retraction of the study. However, the “update” is not published on the homepage of the website, which reportedly reaches millions of readers in Latin America. This “update” may correct the record for readers who subsequently find the article on Google, but does little to remedy the impression formed by readers at the time of publication.
The situation highlights the limits of a retraction. If the evidence reveals that the study was a planned attack by a competitor, trade associations, like the Independent Petroleum Association of America, have a number of tools at their disposal to restore the reputations of their members, including deceptive trade practice and trade libel claims. Even where a trade association is not individually injured, the association may still bring a defamation claim on behalf of its members (so-called “representational” or “associational” standing) where (1) the lawsuit falls within the trade association’s mission, and (2) the challenged conduct is equally detrimental to all members of the association. Reputation is only restored where the retraction of the discredited study replaces the study itself in the permanent record.
Environmental Science and Technology have confirmed the retraction here, stating:
After publication the authors discovered a mistake in the air concentration calculations. PAH air concentrations reported in the original article are therefore incorrect. The calculation error resulted from using incorrect units of the ideal gas constant, and improper cell linkages in the spreadsheet used to adjust air concentrations for sampling temperature. Correcting this error changes air concentrations significantly relative to those reported in the published article. This correction also changes some of the conclusions reported in the original article.
Due to the impact of this correction on the reported findings, all authors retract the original article. The original article was published on March 26, 2015 and retracted on June 29, 2016.
The original paper seems to have been well publicised. For instance, a quick Google finds that the US National Library of Medicine still has the Abstract here. There is no mention of the retraction.
This is the Abstract:
Natural gas extraction, often referred to as "fracking," has increased rapidly in the U.S. in recent years. To address potential health impacts, passive air samplers were deployed in a rural community heavily affected by the natural gas boom. Samplers were analyzed for 62 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Results were grouped based on distance from each sampler to the nearest active well. PAH levels were highest when samplers were closest to active wells. Additionally, PAH levels closest to natural gas activity were an order of magnitude higher than levels previously reported in rural areas. Sourcing ratios indicate that PAHs were predominantly petrogenic, suggesting that elevated PAH levels were influenced by direct releases from the earth. Quantitative human health risk assessment estimated the excess lifetime cancer risks associated with exposure to the measured PAHs. Closest to active wells, the risk estimated for maximum residential exposure was 2.9 in 10 000, which is above the U.S. EPA’s acceptable risk level. Overall, risk estimates decreased 30% when comparing results from samplers closest to active wells to those farthest. This work suggests that natural gas extraction may be contributing significantly to PAHs in air, at levels that are relevant to human health.
Of course, whereas the original paper made headlines, very few people will be aware of the retraction.