Responsible Drilling Alliance

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Early Infant Mortality

By Ralph Kisberg

The April issue of the Journal of Environmental Protection included a disturbingly titled study on infant mortality and fracking. Before anyone goes flying off the handle in either direction, we are just bringing this study to your attention, not endorsing the conclusions reached. What first caught our attention is that it includes actual data from counties in our region, including Lycoming. Please keep in mind that even the study’s authors warn, “the small numbers do not permit any statistical certainty for each county on its own.” But at the same time, no one wants to see a significant increase in the rate of infant mortality here or anywhere else, and it appears there was one in the first 4 years of shale gas development in the region, compared to the 4 years prior, and compared to other Pennsylvania counties that are not among the top in shale gas production.  

The focus and track record of the study’s authors, PhD Christopher Busby of Ireland and the Lativian Academy of Science, and Joseph Mangano (MPH) of the Public Health Project in New York, are more than enough to make Tom Shepstone’s head explode. Both author’s focus on radiation issues have earned then the ire of the nuclear power and weapons industries and now surely, oil and gas. Charges of shabby research, junk science, fake news or just Latvia’s proximity to Russia, abound. Perhaps there is some merit to the charges, but let’s focus first on the numbers.  

The author’s set out, “To investigate association between early (0-28 days) infant mortality by county in Pennsylvania and fracking.” They did it by comparing early infant mortality (EIM) from the beginning years of shale development, 2007-2010, with a control period of the four years proceeding, 2003-2006. What the data showed in what they termed “the five north east fracked counties”, Bradford, Susquehanna, Lycoming, Wyoming and Tioga, was early infant mortality increased from 34 deaths ( ’03-06”) to 60 deaths ( ’07 – ’10). That’s a whopping percentage increase, especially given that in counties off the shale, the trend was actually down.  

The study also looked at 5 SW PA counties where fracking was also ramping up; Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, Butler and Greene. There the increase was smaller, but still bucking the trend of the rest of the state, from 157 EIM deaths to 178 over the same 4 year period. From the data the authors go on to look at “ evidence…which supports the contamination of the drinking water by naturally occurring radioactive material, including Radium as a cause of the increased risk. They also state, “We may examine other possible explanations for possible health effects which have been advanced.”  

Eventually the authors reach the conclusion, “Fracking appears to be associated with early infant mortality in populations living in counties where the process is carried out. There is some evidence that the effect is associated with private water well density and/or environmental law violations”. Living in Lycoming County, this seems like a stretch. According to the DEP, in 2007 a total of 5 unconventional wells were drilled in Lycoming County, followed by 11 in 2008, 23 in 2009 and 119 in 2010. As the county with the largest population by far of the five north east fracked counties, it isn’t surprising that the largest number of births and of EIM in those counties were in Lycoming, from 19 EMI deaths from ’03 -’06, to 28 from ’07 – –’10. A huge percentage increase, but with the low numbers of shale gas wells drilled here in the first 3 years of the development, coupled with the fact that a large percentage of the county lives in municipalities with public water supplies, the largest of which, the Williamsport Municipal Water Authority, sources it’s water in areas that are not subject to gas development, the source of the increased mortality likely lies somewhere else.  

In this case it seems the authors came in looking for a correlation with shale gas development and thought they found one. It’s understandable, it’s not disputed that the Marcellus shale contains NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material). The levels seem to vary, usually they are low, but spikes have been documented. No one seems to have a good handle on why or when they may be found. The authors say, there “is already evidence that exposures to low levels of NORM in drinking water causes increased levels of cancer, leukemia and birth defects.” And they go on to state, “Early infant mortality is a flag for genetic damage, and thus represents a ‘miner’s canary’ for other ill health effects in children and adults, particularly cancer, though there is a temporal lag in cancer between exposure and clinical expression.”.  

The authors may have reached a wrong conclusion as to the cause of the EIM increase, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t exposed a trend that should alarm us. Unfortunately, for all the above reasons, their study will be ignored or discredited. Those of us who live here may be more concerned with getting to the bottom of the disturbing EIM trend than worrying about how it does or doesn’t involve the gas industry. The logical next step is to look at the EIM data from 2011 on. In terms of shale gas wells, the years 2011 – 2013 saw 299, 203 and 161 shale gas wells drilled in the county. In the last 4 years the numbers have declined to 86, 17, 3, and so far this year, 8 or 9. Did the EIM trend continue, did it level out or drop back? The spike in tragic deaths could just as easily be related to something else, like the heroin and opioid epidemic, but the point is, as a community, do we care or not?

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