Rigorous Science to Protect Public Health and Safety
Posted September 4, 2019
The natural gas and oil industry cares about the health and safety of the communities where it operates. These are our homes and communities, too – places where we’re raising our families. Getting health and safety right is more than just business. It’s a major focus of our industry’s engagement with communities, as we earn and sustain the permission to safely develop natural gas and oil.
As part of this engagement, industry is mindful of the safety, health and welfare of surrounding communities, to ensure careful decision-making related to our health and safety responsibilities. We’re guided by high-quality science. We employ and work with scientists, including toxicologists and epidemiologists, so that our analyses are well-founded.
As a scientist myself, let me be clear: We must rely on real science as a basis for sound decision-making so that as we operate the public and the environment are protected. Unscientific material – such as opinion pieces, unfinished studies and misinformation campaigns – isn’t helpful to this process, creates false narratives and can skew public perceptions.
Earlier this summer, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York released the sixth edition of a compendium that purports to summarize more than 1,500 scientific reports, peer-reviewed studies and investigative journalism reports about threats to public health from industry’s activities.
A closer look, however, reveals that half of the references in the compendium are newspaper articles, blogs and other writings that aren’t considered scientific research or evidence by the scientific community or regulatory authorities.
Here’s the breakdown: 47% of the references are newspaper articles that review or reference the peer-reviewed literature or are investigative reports that include references to the compendium. The cited gray literature – non-peer reports and reviews put out by agencies, trades and non-governmental organizations – does not include original research.
The bottom line is that of the 1,477 documents referenced in the compendium, only 2% or 31 of the references represent “population studies” that could be considered directly informative by the scientific community. Population studies potentially offer clues about associations between health outcomes and industry activities.
Those 31 population studies were recently reviewed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) and the Colorado of Department of Public Health and Environment using a scientific method for evaluating weight of evidence.
The two state health agencies concluded that limitations in the existing epidemiology studies “make it difficult to establish clear links between exposures to substances potentially emitted directly from ONG (oil and natural gas) operations and the health outcomes evaluated.” They recommended more robust studies, particularly those with more accurate exposure measures, to scientifically determine whether there are any correlations. Dr. Rachel Levine of the PDH noted in a statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“As a pediatrician and a public health advocate, the public can rest assured that if I knew that we were inadequately protecting public health, I would make that case clear to Governor Wolf …... But I believe that we do not have enough information to make such a determination in this case.”
Not every research study contributes to addressing the very complex questions about health. Some studies and reports provide only a partial picture, while others simply aren’t relevant scientifically.
Newspaper stories, editorials and other opinion pieces often are not science-based and don’t provide rigorous information and unbiased analysis. It’s something to keep in mind, with some trying to impact the public conversation about health and safety associated with our industry’s operations.
In the near future, I’ll share more information on how industry activities and operations are designed and how we are regulated to ensure that public health is protected. Watch this space!
About The Author
Uni Blake is a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at API. As a toxicologist her focus includes exposure and risk assessments as they relate to environmental and public health. Uni graduated from the College of Wooster with a bachelors in chemistry and the American University with a masters in toxicology. Currently, she is working on a doctorate in Public Health in Environmental and Occupation Health at George Washington University. She lives in the Northern Neck of Virginia with her husband and children, where she enjoys working in the yard and taking care of her flower and vegetable gardens.