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First Study of Its Kind Detects 44 Hazardous Air Pollutants at Gas Drilling Sites

With gas wells in some states being drilled near schools and homes, scientists see a need for better chemical disclosure laws and follow-up research.

Dec 3, 2012
(Page 3 of 3 )
Activists protest against fracking outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in New Yor

Sgamma, the industry representative, said the TEDX study "has all the problems you'd expect when a zoologist and psychologist attempt to conduct an air quality study." 

The "zoologist" refers to Colborn, who helped pioneer the field of endocrine disruption in the 1980s and served on numerous government science panels. Colborn describes herself as an "environmental health analyst"—a term that reflects her multidisciplinary background in zoology, epidemiology, toxicology, freshwater ecology and water chemistry.

Kwiatkowski has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and specializes in statistical analysis. She is a former assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

According to the TEDX website, the organization runs on three basic principles: rigorous scientific analysis, promoting education on endocrine disruption and advocating policy to protect public health and the environment. Kwiatkowski said she wasn't surprised by Sgamma's criticism, because TEDX has been willing to tackle issues that other scientists "might typically not want to go out on a limb for."

"What industry does is attack your reputation as a scientist," Kwiatkowski said. "Young scientists in particular can't afford to have their reputations challenged."

The TEDX study cites two recent studies with similar research goals—a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) from the University of Colorado School of Public Health and a pilot study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The HIA was commissioned in 2010 to examine the potential health affects of a pending gas drilling project in Garfield County, the same county Colborn's group examined, but the county commissioners cut its funding before it could be completed. A draft of the HIA from Feb. 2011 cited a 2007 air monitoring report that identified oil and natural gas production as the largest contributor of benzene in Garfield County.

The NOAA study, published in February by the Journal of Geophysical Research, found that oil and gas operations released more methane and benzene than previously thought. It used a chemical fingerprint to pinpoint drilling operations as the source of the contaminants, but it examined far fewer non-methane hydrocarbons than the TEDX paper.

Researchers from the Health Impact Assessment and a co-author of the NOAA study declined to comment on the TEDX paper. The lead author of the NOAA paper did not return requests for information.

Sgamma also questioned the researchers' decision to publish the paper in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, which she said is not a "typical" destination for air quality studies.

Kwiatkowski said they chose the journal because they wanted it to reach scientists who study risk assessment.

Barry L. Johnson, the journal's editor-in-chief for the past 12 years, said the publication's first priority is the quality of the science in the manuscripts it receives. He said it has published papers written by industry researchers and that industry scientists serve on the journal's board. Johnson has worked for the EPA and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and is an adjunct professor of public health and environmental policy at Emory University.

The TEDX paper was processed like any other study, Johnson said. It was sent to two scientists for peer review, both of whom have published widely on issues of air quality. The reviewers' names are kept private, he said, because his journal operates under a double-blind review system, where authors and peer reviewers are unaware of each others' identities in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Johnson said his publication "deemed the [TEDX] paper, as we have deemed others dealing with air quality, as being relevant to the aim, purpose and scope of our journal." He said that Sgamma is welcome to submit formal comments on the paper.

The TEDX study is "clearly labeled and presented as an exploratory study," he said. "It has strengths and limitations—I don't know of any studies that don't. That's just how science works ... and this may contribute towards a better understanding of what's happening around gas operations."

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