Study cites possible link between drilling, health

by Nelson Harvey, Special to the Aspen Daily News
Scientist crowdfunding further research on health effects of drilling in Garfield County

A scientist from the University of Missouri whose recently published research suggested a possible link between gas drilling spills and elevated levels of hormone disrupting chemicals in the gas patch areas of Garfield County is planning to return for a second phase of work in the coming months.

Dr. Susan Nagel, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at the University of Missouri who published a study in the March 2014 edition of the peer reviewed journal Endocrinology detailing her Garfield County findings, is launching the second phase of research with an unexpected twist: She’s crowdfunding the work through the new science fundraising website

Nagel’s team has raised just over $11,000 from 67 backers since fundraising began on March 24, and has 33 more days to raise the target amount of $25,000.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to determine if fracking [the gas drilling practice formally known as hydraulic fracturing] is contaminating water with hormone disruptors in order to better protect humans and wildlife,” Nagel wrote in an e-mail. “We want to rigorously test the association that we observed in our first study between fracking and hormone disrupting activity in surface and ground water to confirm or refute it.”

Endocrine disrupting chemicals either mimic or interfere with sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone and have been linked to cancer, infertility and behavioral and immune system disorders. Of the more than 700 chemicals commonly used in the fracking process, Nagel said many have been shown in laboratory studies to act as endocrine disruptors, and in the first phase of her Garfield County research her team analyzed 12 such chemicals and found endocrine disrupting potential in 11 of them.

Nagel’s team also collected 30 ground and surface water samples from five drilling-dense areas of Garfield County, and found that most of them contained higher levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals than samples collected either in parts of Garfield County where drilling was sparse or in a part of Missouri completely free of gas drilling.

Following the release of Nagel’s first round of research last December, representatives from the oil and gas industry like the national group Energy in Depth and the local Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association (WSCOGA) criticized her methods and conclusions.

David Ludlam, the executive director of WSCOGA, could not be reached for comment on Friday, but after the release of Nagel’s first phase of research he said Nagel hadn’t conclusively proven that the endocrine disruptors she and colleagues found were linked to oil and gas pollution.

He pointed out that endocrine disrupting chemicals are found in a huge range of household products, “so the fact that you are finding these sort of things in water bodies, I don’t know that there’s necessarily a [drilling related] causation there.”

And Ludlam said it was unsurprising to find higher concentrations of such chemicals at sites where oil and gas spills have occurred in the past. He claimed that such spills are anomalous within Garfield County, which has more than 10,000 active wells.

In the second phase of her research, Nagel appears to be attempting to address such critiques head on. Her team plans to collect water samples from at least 30 Garfield County sites, including both spill sites and sites where drilling activity is high, but no spills have been reported.

“We want to investigate whether there is just a certain level of these chemicals associated with drilling, even if there isn’t a spill,” Nagel said.

Her team is also planning a chemical analysis to conclusively determine whether the hormone disrupting compounds detected in Garfield County water samples are some of the same ones used in the fracking process.

Nagel said she decided to try crowdfunding her research after a recent application for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was denied. The scientists reviewing the grant, Nagel said, were generally enthusiastic about her fracking study but suggested several revisions to its scope, including testing for the presence of chemicals that affect the human thyroid gland and abandoning a plan to interview Garfield County residents in drilling-dense areas about their health ailments.

Faced with a delay of up to a year before the next round of NIH funding will become available, Nagel turned to crowdfunding to get her research underway more quickly.

Nagel said she hopes the crowdfunding campaign will provide the seed money her team needs to generate some initial results that can be used to apply for NIH funding, which in turn could enable Nagel to investigate the link between fracking and endocrine disrupting chemicals “for years to come.”

Her first round of study was funded by the Passport Foundation, a San Francisco-based private organization that supports scientific research.

Some scientists who have crowdfunded research into the health effects of fracking in the past say the public outreach involved makes crowdfunding more time consuming than applying for government or foundation grants. Yet they also say that crowdfunding can yield greater transparency and public understanding of the scientific process.

Dr. Chris Grant is a professor of ecology at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn., who last year was part of a team that raised about $11,000 through a crowdfunding website to investigate the link between fracking and stream health in Pennsylvania.

“In total, if we would have spent the same amount of time and effort over a three-month period on traditional grant writing, we likely would have garnered much greater financial support,” Grant wrote in an e-mail. “However, [my colleague] and I both feel strongly that the public has a right to know what we are doing and open access to our findings.”

Rebecca Searles, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based, said the groundswell of public interest in the health effects of fracking makes research on the topic a natural fit for a crowdfunding campaign.

“It’s an important topic that we don’t know enough about, and we know people feel really strongly about it,” Searles wrote in an e-mail. “That’s why we’re here after all, to support research that people care about and that doesn’t get enough funding as is.”