Elaine Hill interview on her research that was attacked by frac industry; One of the first scholarly explorations of health harm caused by fracing

Brighton’s link to NY fracking ban by Steve Orr, January 24, 2015, Democrat and Chronicle
Elaine Hill was a young graduate student at Cornell University, a doctoral candidate in economics whose research interests lay in Africa, when she first heard of this thing called fracking. It was 2010. Ithaca was alive with opposition to that controversial method of extracting oil and gas from underground shale deposits. Hill heard claims that fracking — more formally known as hydraulic fracturing — harmed human health. She went online to look for data that backed up those claims. She came up empty.

“There was literally nothing I could find,” said Hill, who grew up in Brighton. She recalls thinking, “Somebody’s got to study this.” That somebody turned out to be her.

Over the next two years, Hill would generate her own data set in Pennsylvania shale country and produce one of the first scholarly explorations of the health impacts that may result from living near high-volume hydraulically fractured gas and oil wells.

Her 2012 working paper was one of the first studies to suggest a link between fracking and ill health. Provocatively, it suggested that newborns might be affected. And that study found its way, prominently, into the state Department of Health review released last month that justified the Cuomo administration’s decision to ban high-volume fracking in New York.

As the authors of that review made clear, there is no proof that fracking harms human health — but Hill’s work, as much as any, raised hard questions that apparently led state officials to err on the side of caution.

While still not in final form, that novella-length study has earned Hill prominence in the field. That prominence, however, came at a price.

Two years ago, in part because of what Hill now describes as her own naiveté, she and her research got caught up in fracking’s fractious politics after she chose to go public with her preliminary findings. Hill was publicly raked over the coals by pro-drilling forces who accused her of drawing conclusions from thin air.

… Hill’s experience was not unique. … Earlier this month, another research paper that had been cited in the state Department of Health’s fracking review was shrilly denounced by a petroleum-industry official. Hill’s own work was mentioned briefly in another industry piece that took issue with the Health Department’s conclusions.

Hill, who earned her doctorate in May, is now on the faculty of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

In a recent interview, Hill spoke publicly for the first time about the tongue-lashing she endured two years ago. She was engaging and articulate, sharing stories about her time at Brighton High School and her excitement about returning home to teach and conduct research at the medical center.

She stoutly defended her research into fracking’s health effects as valid and very meaningful in the debate about the safety of shale-gas extraction. On-going research and refinement has only verified that her original data were spot-on. “I think it’s an important finding that implores researchers to understand what’s going on,” she said.

But she chose her words carefully when discussing that study and other issues related to drilling, saying she has learned from her time in the spotlight.

“In some ways, being drenched in the acid bath of the policy debate was harrowing and certainly one of the more anxiety-inducing experiences of my Ph.D.,” Hill said. “But it means that I am more careful about how I talk about my research, how I think about my research. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for any researcher, but especially for a young researcher.”

One day in 2010, in the GreenStar Natural Foods Market in Ithaca, she picked up a pamphlet about fracking. Until then, she’d been largely oblivious to what was the biggest environmental issue in New York state. “I wasn’t really paying any attention,” Hill said. “From what I gathered from some friends and acquaintances, it was being protested and discussed long before I ever knew about it.”

The study that resulted two years later assessed the health of about 2,400 infants born to women who lived within 1 1/2 miles of natural-gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania, where shale-gas development had been occurring at a breakneck pace.

For comparison, Hill looked at the health of infants born to a demographically similar group — women who lived near well sites that had been approved for development but not yet drilled.

She found that infants born to women living near existing wells were 25 percent more likely to be underweight when born, and 26 percent more likely to have lower scores on the APGAR test, a basic health assessment made five minutes after birth. There was no increased incidence of premature birth.

Hill did not monitor for pollutants near the gas wells. But she cited research by others that had found airborne chemicals near well sites, as well as studies linking some of those chemicals to poor birth outcomes.

She found it plausible that the changes in birth outcome she observed in Pennsylvania could be related to fracking pollutants, and wrote that her data were evidence that living near well sites was “very detrimental to fetal development.”

Hill’s research continued after she finished her 2012 working paper, and she was not at the point of submitting it to a scholarly journal. Submission triggers peer review, the process in which other experts in the field read and critique a paper before it is accepted for publication. She did make the working paper available to other scholars and spoke about it at a national conference, both common practices in the economics field.

In the ‘lions’ den’
With knowledge of her findings so widespread, word found its way to New York fracking opponents.

They asked Hill if they could share her paper with the media and, after checking with her Cornell adviser, Hill agreed. It was emailed to reporters by a publicist working for New Yorkers Against Fracking.

That same day, Hill testified about her research at a Manhattan fracking forum convened by state Senate Democrats. She shared the microphone with prominent anti-drilling activists, including filmmaker Fox and Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and author who is a visiting professor at Ithaca College.

News stories and blogs about her work circulated in print and online over the next several weeks. Many gave great weight to her findings. Fracking proponents, however, did not. While Hill’s statistical findings were not called into question, critics did attack her for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions about the data. This led one critic to term the paper “completely unscientific.”

Hill said she wasn’t aware that the Health Department, in its discussion of her work, suggested she may have “overstated” her findings by asserting there was a “causal relationship” between fracking and poor birth outcomes.

She won’t discuss any of her work-in-progress in any detail. Earlier versions of her Pennsylvania gas-well study can be found online but the latest revision cannot. Studies of pregnancy outcome and natural-gas development focused on infants born in Texas and Colorado are similarly being kept under wraps. “Given the controversy, I have chosen to not have them in the public domain to be respectful of the conversation,” Hill said.

She did note, wryly, her Pennsylvania study no longer contains a “causal relationship” reference.

Hill has submitted the Pennsylvania research for publication in a peer reviewed journal, and will submit one or both of the companion studies. Summaries of the Texas and Colorado papers posted on Hill’s research website said she found evidence of health impacts there as well.

The scientific method — hypothesize, test, analyze — is a slow and painstaking one. Research into the health effects of natural-gas extraction remains in its infancy; the Health Department cited only three studies in which researchers examined large amounts of data to look for evidence of health problems near well sites.

There is nowhere near enough information to see clear patterns. The Health Department noted that a 2014 examination of birth outcomes, this one in Colorado shale-gas country, had found an elevated rate of birth defects but no change in birth weight — just the opposite of Hill’s findings.

Still another study, though, as yet unpublished, reportedly replicated Hill’s result. [Emphasis added]

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