Both sides of the argument authoritatively cite a scant and inconclusive body of knowledge. Developing a more comprehensive scientific baseline on which to gauge risks is hurt by a lack of reporting requirements by the industry, which is exempt from many rules fundamental to gauge environmental impacts and protect public health.
A main theme of Gasland, and of Fox’s follow-up short film, The Sky is Pink, is built around the risks of methane migration, a phenomenon when explosive gases move through the ground into enclosed spaces, sometimes with disastrous results. The gas industry typically blames methane migration on naturally occurring circumstances, without acknowledging that holes drilled into pressurized gas-baring zones thousands of feet deep can open pathways to aquifers and homes at the surface, despite efforts to seal them off. Fox produced the Sky is Pink partly to rebut industry criticism that the footage depicting methane migration in Gasland – notably tap water that erupts into a ffireball in Mike Markham’s sink -- was due to naturally occurring methane. In the film, Fox supports the flaming-faucet footage with documents and a lecture by Cornell Engineering professor (and industry scholar) Tony Ingraffia. Fox also compares the drilling industry’s denial of problems with the tobacco industry’s assertion, for decades, that smoking does not cause cancer. (Fox notes that Big Energy has hired the tobacco industry’s PR firm, Hill and Knowlton.) Had Fox left it at that, The Sky is Pink would have been an effective and persuasive spotlight on the industry’s attempt to cloud the facts. But he doesn’t. After making analogies between the tobacco and drilling industries, Fox states this:
In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties.
Without further exploration or analysis, Fox ridicules a pink drilling rig. Presented in the context of the film, it’s emblematic of the disingenuousness of the industry’s attempts to solve everything with public relations, (which is indeed is an easy target for lampoon).
The approach is cinematically effective; the pink rig juxtaposed with the reference to the cancer registry data is sure to elicit a gasp from industry cynics. It also plays off the title of the film – The Sky is Pink – suggesting the preposterousness of the industry’s capacity to give a damn about the facts. These are deft executions by Fox as a filmmaker. But Fox also presents himself as a journalist; and the breast cancer reference has opened his entire work to a critical offensive not only from the industry scholars and discerning students of public and environmental health, but from the mainstream media.
Fox’s primary source of information, as noted in a follow-up defense of his work, was a report in the Denton Record Chronicle by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe. The story, August 31, 2011, reports that the average rate of breast cancer in six counties rose from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. The story adds that the rates are below the national average, and that researchers did not attribute a cause, although it might involve “many factors.”
Public records compiled from cancer registry data give a snapshot of cancers diagnosed in given places at given times. (I learned this from years of fist hand reporting on several statistically significant leukemia clusters over industrial TCE plumes under several neighborhoods in Broome County New York.) But they are not a tool intended for or capable of accounting for myriad risk factors and demographics necessary for a meaningful epidemiology study. Cancer exposures typically must be accounted for over time (prior to diagnosis). So patients’ histories, life styles, occupations, and migrations need to be factored in. Also, how can one risk be separated from another? Smoking? Diet? Age? Health Care access? Poverty level? Are people moving into the area with these risk factors from another area?
When taking into account all these kinds of factors, sometimes patterns emerge from cancer registry data that are invisible in the vagueness of the big picture; and sometimes patterns that seem significant on face value disappear. Yet Fox’s film – highlighting a map showing blocks of red over the Barnett Shale representing elevated breast cancer rates – fails to mention, much less account for, any of this. It’s the very kind of rhetorical recklessness that Fox blames on the industry, and it has prompted similar kinds of criticism
“Saying something causes breast cancer is like yelling fire in a theater. It should be only said when true,” states John Hanger, who headed Pennsylvania’s efforts to regulate the shale gas industry under Gov. Ed. Rendell. (Hanger was a primary pursuer of the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to order Cabot Oil and Gas to build a waterline to Dimock to compensate residents for an aquifer damaged by drilling-related methane migration.) You can read his blog on the Sky is Pink here.
Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, author, and fracking opponent, defended Fox by noting that, just because something is not known conclusively to cause cancer, doesn’t mean that it should be excluded as a suspect. In her view, the numbers in Fox’s film warrant a closer look:
The larger point made in The Sky is Pink that there is something unusual about the longer-term breast cancer incidence patterns in the counties overlying the Barnett Shale where gas drilling is most intense. These patterns clearly need to be investigated further.But does fracking cause cancer? The back and forth between those for and those against was predictable. Less predicable was backlash from an Associated Press reporter Kevin Begos, who called Fox on his lack of methodology. In his July 22 report, Begos cites, among others, Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas who characterized Fox’s reading of breast cancer rates as way off base. Lee called the claims of an increase "a classic case of the ecological fallacy" because they falsely suggest that breast cancer is linked to just one factor. In fact, diet, lifestyle and access to health care also play key roles.
I believe that Begos’ report reflects healthy (and growing) pressure from the mainstream news media to raise the bar of accountability on both sides for readers growing tired of a partisan back and forth and looking for more sophistication in reporting. Weighing the long-term environmental consequences of spills, water consumption, methane migration, waste production and disposal, truck traffic etc. is not simple – it requires manpower, reporting, transparency, and enforcement. Gauging effects on public health is even more problematic. Researchers must test changes in an elusive and migrant human population with logistical and cultural barriers to examination. The tools of epidemiology – statistics and probability – are abstractions that defy the craving for black and white arguments that easily suite the rhetorical purposes of either side of the argument. Assigning responsibility for dead fish, unhealthy air, biological fragmentation – can be politically charged. Epidemiology studies that connect human disease and mortality to industrial factors are sure to grab even more attention.
As Fox may (or may not) be learning, using incomplete data to make sweeping observations may do his cause more harm than good. That said, pressing for more information is a worthwhile pursuit. Lack of a clear picture of public health risks from fracking should not dampen public discussion that provokes the kind of study that eventually leads to answers.