Science Council Debunks More Environment Scares from 2013

Published May 5, 2014

The American Council on Science and Health has identified its “Top 13 health scares of 2013,” with a majority of the false health scares catering to environmental activism. In the second of a multipart series, Environment & Climate News presents excerpts from the Top 13 list:

Nuclear Power Scare in Huntsville, AL

Origin of the scare:
A report commissioned by the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team and Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation suggested there was increased infant mortality near a nuclear power plant in Huntsville, Alabama. The report was written by an anti-nuclear-power group known for stirring up phony nuclear scares.

Using statistical sleight of hand and a carefully crafted and intentionally misleading headline, Joseph Mangano of the Radiation and Public Health Project and colleagues successfully scared the people of Huntsville into thinking there was an increase in infant mortality (and cancer) due to the nearby Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.

Media coverage:
The report did its job, resulting in coverage on multiple news and Internet sites. Typical headlines read, “Higher death rate for people around U.S. nuclear plant” and  “Environmental Group Says Study Shows Those Living Near Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Have Higher Mortality Rates.”

Fortunately, Margot Gray, a reporter for NBC affiliate, WAFF in Huntsville, Alabama, did an extensive (and fairly balanced) investigation, which included an interview with Dr. Josh Bloom of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

ACSH perspective:
There was not a shred of credible evidence of any increase in infant mortality.

The group’s previous tactics had been exposed by Dr. Bloom in his January 2012 Forbes editorial, “Garbage In, Anti-Nuclear Propaganda Out: The 14,000 Death Fukushima Lie.” The group had previously claimed that within the first three months after the Fukushima accident, excess deaths were seen in multiple cities across the United States. That is physically impossible.

Based on his Forbes editorial, WAFF contacted Dr. Bloom and asked him to evaluate the validity of the claims. The resulting article and TV interview made it crystal-clear why the report was a farce. Here is an example:

Even a cursory examination of their data revealed the obvious—there was no increase, and the entire “issue” was made up from selective misuse of statistics.

The authors compared the infant mortality rate during five-year intervals before and after the Brown’s River plant opened in 1974. This is where the activists’ assertions falls apart.

As compared to the mortality rates in the rest of the United States, Mangano tried to argue the power plant may be a factor in infant mortality. But all you have to do is look at the numbers and the absurdity of this claim becomes obvious.

During the five-year period before the plant opened, the infant mortality rate in the seven counties that Mangano selected was 6.5 percent (red arrow) higher than that of the United States. During the five-year period after the plant opened that number “jumped” to 12.1 percent (blue arrow). U-oh, right? Not exactly. During the next two five-year periods (yellow arrow) the rate dropped below the U.S. average. Then it became equal to the national average, and then it rose significantly.

Does this make sense? Of course not—a fact that is conveniently ignored in the author’s conclusion:

“The unusual and steady rise in local death rates should be taken seriously by health officials, who need to conduct their own studies to examine potential causes—among them, toxic releases from Browns Ferry.”

No, there was no steady rise in the local death rate. It is clear the entire 54-page report is based on meaningless numbers and innuendo.

Bottom line:
Garbage in, garbage out.

Fracking (Hydraulic Fracturing)

High-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale formations—also known as “fracking”—has been in widespread use to rupture shale deposits of oil and natural gas. Regions historically most involved in fracking include the Texas-Louisiana border area, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming. However, beginning in the first several years of this century, the more difficult challenge of releasing these fossil fuels from “tighter” shale formations—the Marcellus below the Appalachian region from Albany to West Virginia, and the Utica field below eastern Ohio—was solved technologically. Soon many sites of these “shale plays” came under hydraulic fracturing development, with vast amounts of natural recovered.

Pennsylvania, especially, had a major influx of such drilling sites, with the large majority of landowners finding leases to oil and gas exploration companies to be highly lucrative, with minimal interference with their normal agricultural activities.

Origin of the scare:
As drilling activity increased in the U.S. Northeast, the momentum of its progress hit a major roadblock. In 2010 filmmaker Josh Fox released the “documentary” Gasland, igniting anti-fracking hysteria as an “environmentalist” mass movement. The key moment in that movie, shown over and over again on screens large and small, was a homeowner in protective goggles turning on his tap water and setting it on fire with a match.

The poignant scene resulted in the widespread mythology that the “new” technology, fracking, involved dangerous procedures leading to leakage of toxic chemically treated water at high pressure into aquifers, well water, and tap water. Few of those complaining had any idea what the fracking process entails, nor that in the prior decades in the western United States, this methodology had been safely employed without the asserted environmental side-effects.

Opposition to fracking became a cause celebre among some members of the entertainment elite, especially those with landholdings in the Southern Tier region of New York state, such as Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono. These celebrities commanded a large megaphone, and they utilized it bluntly to put political pressure on state leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As a result, Cuomo has demanded an endless round of “health impact assessments” under the seeming authority of the Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, who complied with the apparent plan to avoid coming to any decision until all possible health and environmental impacts were completely studied.

Media coverage:
The mainstream media trumpeted the “toxic fracking” and “contaminated water” messages pumped out by the “Don’t Frack New York” groups and a plethora of like-minded ad hoc organizations. News articles quoted homeowners in areas of Pennsylvania where shale fracturing was ongoing, asserting odiferous and discolored water was causing various ailments among their family members. The town of Dimock, Pennsylvania presented several such complainants, and the drilling company Cabot Oil & Gas agreed to supply purified water to the town’s residents for several months, pending official investigations.

When the EPA found no evidence of fracking-related water contamination, those deliveries ceased. The townspeople who remained convinced fracking fouled their water continued litigation for a time against Cabot. A similar contamination investigation in Pavillion, Wyoming also found no smoking gun, and the EPA yielded the study to Wyoming state authorities.

ACSH’s perspective:
Objective evidence of hydraulic fracturing-related water contamination remains elusive at best. The simple fact that shale fracturing occurs 5,000 to 9,000 feet underground while aquifers are only several hundred feet down explains the lack of proven instances. U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Muniz, the U.S. Geological Survey, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) have all stated they have not identified any groundwater contamination caused by fracking.

Our synopsis of this irresponsible, unscientific attack on a major technological advance is found in an editorial by ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan: “Fracking would be a huge boon to economically depressed areas of rural New York State. Our society cannot afford to let elitist environmentalists posing as public health advocates hold sway over our economy. It’s time for New York to legalize fracking.”

Bottom line:
There are probably a few instances of surface water contamination whose sources are fracking sites due to negligence or accidents, or water-flowback problems, rather than some inherent danger in the fracking process itself. However, considering there are approximately two million hydraulic fracturing sites active in the United States, complete absence of any such instances would be truly remarkable indeed.

On balance, the massive benefits to our economy, energy independence, and employment render these isolated environmental problems into obstacles that can and will be solved with improved technologies. In conclusion it should be noted the tap-water flame so famously highlighted in Gasland was confirmed to be a result of naturally occurring methane in the nearby Colorado water table, and not related to any fracking activity.

Arsenic in Apple Juice and Rice

Origin of the scare:
In 2011, Dr. Mehmet Oz revealed on his television show the testing results on several brands of apple juice. He announced a number of samples contained high levels of arsenic, and he warned parents to beware of giving young children one of their favorite beverages. In 2012, Consumer Reports followed up with an investigation into the levels of arsenic found in rice and rice products. In 2013 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stepped in with its own guidance, setting limits for arsenic in these products at the same level as those for drinking water.

Media coverage:
Initially, the FDA responded sharply to the apple juice scare by accusing Dr. Oz and his team of inflating the risks from the arsenic levels in juice—levels that their own tests did not find to be excessive. Dr. Oz’s team had not separated organic arsenic (not harmful) from inorganic arsenic (harmful) in their tests, the FDA pointed out. Both the Oz claim and the FDA responses were covered widely by such media as ABC News, CBS News, Good Morning America, and others.

After the Consumer Reports article, the FDA confirmed the results of the Consumer Reports investigation, and that too was widely covered in the media. In 2013, the FDA released a draft guidance for industry, stating the ‘action level’ for inorganic arsenic in apple juice would be 10 ppb, or the same as that for water.

ACSH’s perspective:
As we’ve pointed out many times, minuscule amounts of virtually any chemical pose no danger to human health. Simply finding a toxin like arsenic in foods doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a health risk involved. A natural element like arsenic will end up in many natural products because it is found in the earth and in water. As a result, any plant or plant product, depending on where it’s grown, is likely to contain some arsenic.

The FDA’s own tests did not initially find excessive levels of arsenic in either the juice or the rice products they tested. The FDA only changed its mind in response to the Consumer Reports investigation, which spurred the agency to conduct its own reinvestigation.

Bottom line:
Levels of arsenic in apple juice and rice products should not worry parents of young children or anyone else. All foods should be consumed in moderation, and this will prevent excessive consumption of any potentially problematic food or ingredient.