Sentinels and Skeptics of the Shale 

What can we learn from those who live closest to fracking?

Fracking, South Montrose, Pennsylvania.

A hydraulic fracturing site operates on June 19, 2012, in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. Are people who live near fracking sites being used as modern-day canaries in the coal mine?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, back when scientists used to experiment on themselves, the Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane would sit in sealed chambers huffing toxic gasses and recording the effects on his body. This earned him something of a reputation, so he was asked by the British secretary of state to identify the gases being used by the Germans in World War I. His research on the frontlines led to the invention of the gas mask.

But before this, Haldane figured out that lethal component of the “afterdamp” responsible for so many coal miner deaths was actually carbon monoxide, which he (naturally) tested on his own lungs. In the 1890s, he introduced the use of small animals like canaries to act as detectors of carbon monoxide in coal mines. Their small size and fast metabolism cause them to show symptoms of toxic exposure in time to give advance warning for the miners.

There is now widespread use of animals as sentinels of environmental health hazards, which is the basic idea behind Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald’s new book The Real Costs of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food. What they report is enough to make you think that the state ought to distribute some of Haldane’s gas masks to those living in heavily fracked areas—or maybe we just need more research.

Bamberger (a veterinarian) and Oswald (a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University) tell the stories of those living close to unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania. These will be the people and the animals to show symptoms first if there are dangerous toxins in the environment. And that’s just what the authors found in a constant refrain from their interviewees:

All of my puppies were born dead.
I have no calves this year.
My vet can’t figure out what’s happening to my animals.
We had to leave our home to escape the bad air …
We all have headaches, nosebleeds, and rashes.

Many of the authors’ stories are eerily foreshadowed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which famously used songbirds as sentinels of a looming tragedy. Carson wrote of a “strange blight” and an “evil spell” that had been cast on the land. Chickens and cattle succumbed to mysterious maladies. Doctors were puzzled by new kinds of sicknesses. And what of the songbirds? They were either dead or trembling violently, unable to fly. “It was a spring without voices.” Bamberger and Oswald are telling similar stories from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania where Carson grew up. Is fracking the new DDT?

In The Real Cost of Fracking, we learn about David, a 14-year-old boy who came down with a mysterious illness shortly after the start of nearby fracking operations. David had arsenic and phenol (a metabolite of the carcinogen benzene) in his blood. When he went to live with friends, the symptoms subsided. But when he returned home to play with his animals, the symptoms came back, even sending him to the hospital again.

We also meet Claire and Jason Wasserman. One day, Jason was outside near a well that was being flared, and he got a nosebleed that stopped after a little while. But the next morning, he went into the bathroom and yelled for Claire. Blood was gushing from his nose. Claire told him to tilt his head back and pinch his nose. But then blood started coming out of his eyes. “Close your eyes! Close your eyes!” she screamed. Then blood came out of his ears.

Bamberger and Oswald’s message is clear: The canaries of the gas patch are wheezing and keeling over. We are being warned.

Or maybe not. After all, a skeptic might say that these are just anecdotes. Sure, the symptoms may be real enough, but what’s the cause? Is fracking really responsible for all this? Prove it! Otherwise, the skeptic will say, this is the same emotional alarmism that drives worries about cancer clusters that scientific studies almost invariably show to be figments of the imagination, random quirks. Carson, too, has been subjected to the skeptic’s criticism: Silent Spring is just a bunch of stories, not a rigorous longitudinal study of the kind that ought to form the basis of public policy.  

But science is slow, and proof is hard to come by. A few cases are open-and-shut. For example, we learn in The Real Cost of Fracking that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection definitively determined that drilling activities polluted Wade Davidson’s water supply. But he was the only person interviewed by the authors where that was the case (though recently the DEP confirmed 243 cases of contaminated water). Lots of people had their water go bad after drilling started, and companies were even supplying them with clean water. But there was no admission or proof of guilt.

Things happen in a fog of uncertainty, with some degree of correlation but with causation floating out there as an open question. What made David sick? Why did Jason get that nosebleed? We don’t know. It could be genes. It could be some other chemical in the environment. Descartes showed us how skepticism is a bottomless pit. If we can doubt, despite all the contrary evidence, that the external world exists at all, then we can easily doubt the health impacts of fracking.

What Bamberger and Oswald want us to see are the political uses of doubt. When you’ve got a system that treats fracking as innocent until proven guilty, then doubt becomes the weapon of the powerful. Given how complex the world is (we are not talking about controlled laboratory experiments here), uncertainties will remain for a long time after scientific studies start trying to catch up to all the technological development. As the science trickles in and the jury deliberates, the fracking goes on, the profits rack up, and David’s mom keeps worrying. If fracking is causing health problems, then by the time enough science has accumulated to connect the dots with any certainty, it’ll be too late.

Precautionary opponents of fracking want to flip the burden of proof and treat the technology as guilty until proven innocent. As with New York’s fracking moratorium, this entails doing the science before committing to the technology. But the same uncertainties hound this process, because proving a technology’s innocence is open to as much doubt as proving its guilt. No matter where you want to put the burden of proof, what looks like a detached appeal to science could well be a political stall tactic.

Critics of Bamberger and Oswald will doubtlessly say what they said about Carson: The stories are one-sided. Carson didn’t talk about the significant upsides of DDT, and neither do Bamberger and Oswald talk about the positives of fracking, such as its potential to displace coal-fired power plants like the ones that once polluted Carson’s hometown of Springdale, Pa. Bamberger and Oswald seem to concede that you can’t get the benefits of a technology without risking the harms. At some point, we have to roll the dice and move the experiment into the real world. Their sentinel approach shows the importance of doing science not just before but also during the commercialization of a technology. If we can’t prevent all the harms, we nonetheless proceed cautiously, watching our canaries with great care, ready to turn back the moment they show signs of trouble.

The problem with the sentinel approach, though, is that it shifts the burden of proof back in favor of the powerful. Rather than (as with precaution) establishing safety prior to action, we now must establish harm during action. And, of course, that’s the rub. Even in scientific studies that do not involve vested corporate interests, establishing cause-and-effect relationships in complex systems is a serious challenge.

But it becomes nearly impossible when we add the systematic obstacles to learn from sentinels that are erected in a neoliberal system. I’ll just name three barriers to sentinel science. First, you’ve got to get people who are not bound by the nondisclosure agreements that allow the industry to buy and lock away their stories. Second, you’ve got to do tons of guesswork, because several fracking chemicals are proprietary and many more have unknown health impacts (especially when combined with one another). Third, you’ve got to do it all on a shoestring budget. Testing and monitoring are expensive, the people being exposed are often not wealthy, and state governments (usually heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry) have not made meaningful commitments to fund public health research.

When the skeptic demands that we prove harm, this is the power structure he is reinforcing. And I think this is why Bamberger and Oswald are justified in blurring the genres here between science and story. The demand for scientific proof can become a dogma that stifles the kind of deeper truths that come from storytelling. These are real people we’re talking about here. They are not data points. Rachel Carson moved the world forward in part because she was a scientist but also because she refused to concede that scientific prose is the only language that reality speaks.

Lurking under all of this is a question, not about the burden of proof, but the standard of proof. How high should we set the bar when it comes to establishing sufficient evidence of harm? Maybe a collection of well-documented stories is not enough, but at some point we fall uncontrollably down that bottomless pit of doubt. This year, Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency’s own data showed that the chemical fingerprint of the methane in Steve Lipsky’s water well was (in the words of one scientist) “essentially exactly the same” as the methane in two neighboring gas wells. You would think this proved those wells had contaminated Lipsky’s water. But the state agency insisted there was “insufficient” evidence to draw any conclusions. Sure, as Descartes might add, some evil demon could have tampered with the evidence. You never know!

So, we’re down in the mine and the canary has dropped over dead. But rather than change course, we demand an autopsy. And even if the results come back positive, we still won’t budge because it’s just one canary, after all. We’ll need to run more tests. Meanwhile, like Haldane in his chamber, we might note in our scientific journal that we’re starting to feel lightheaded.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.