One of the studies reported an increased level of air pollution near gas extraction sites, and the other suggested that 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to air contamination.
According to the corresponding author of both papers, Kim Anderson at Oregon State University, the journal plans to publish new versions of both papers in the next few days. In the case of the fracking paper, the conclusions have been reversed — the original paper stated pollution levels exceeded limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for lifetime cancer risk, but the corrected data set the risks below EPA levels.
The fracking paper received some media attention when it was released, as it tapped into long-standing concerns about the environmental dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which extracts natural gas from the earth. A press release that accompanied the paper quoted Anderson as warning:
Air pollution from fracking operations may pose an under-recognized health hazard to people living near them.
Both papers, published in Environmental Science and Technology, were retracted on the same day (June 29), both due to mistakes in reported levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pollutants released from burning oil, gas, and other organic matter.
After publication the authors discovered a mistake in the air concentration calculations. PAH air concentrations reported in the original article are therefore incorrect. The calculation error resulted from using incorrect units of the ideal gas constant, and improper cell linkages in the spreadsheet used to adjust air concentrations for sampling temperature. Correcting this error changes air concentrations significantly relative to those reported in the published article. This correction also changes some of the conclusions reported in the original article.
Due to the impact of this correction on the reported findings, all authors retract the original article. The original article was published on March 26, 2015 and retracted on June 29, 2016.
The paper has been cited seven times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.
…the study’s volunteers were spearheaded by a known anti-fracking group; the report completely ignores the likely higher-than-normal emissions from other sources; and, the researchers even admit that their work is “not statistically significant” because their sample size was too small and not random. Instead of garnering headlines promoting fear, the report should be notable for its glaring gaps in research.
According to Energy In Depth, the authors also ignored previous data that have suggested fracking is safe.
Regarding the retraction, Energy In Depth notes:
Ohioans deserve a full explanation as to why a study that generated numerous alarmist headlines by promoting fear was retracted. It will also be interesting to see if the retraction gets as much media attention as the flawed study generated.
(We’ve found one outlet — UPI — which has updated its story with news of the retraction.)
Anderson told us that a corrected version of the fracking paper is due to be published by the same journal soon, and sent us the following text from it:
Closest to active wells, the [excess lifetime cancer] risk estimated for maximum residential exposure was 0.04 in a million, which is below the U.S. EPA’s acceptable risk level. Overall, risk estimates decreased 30% when comparing results from samplers closest to active wells to those farthest. This work suggests that natural gas extraction is contributing PAHs to the air, below levels that would increase cancer risk.
Anderson told us that the original miscalculation of PAH levels was due to an “honest spreadsheet error,” adding:
It is important that we stand up and correct the record. This of course is hard as there are many as you are aware that will throw eggs and try to ruin careers, but it is the right thing to do. I very much regret the mistake, but felt it was important to set the record straight, no matter the cost.
After publication the authors discovered a mistake in the air concentration calculations. PAH and OPAH air concentrations reported in the original article are therefore incorrect. The calculation error resulted from using incorrect units of the ideal gas constant and improper cell linkages in the spreadsheet used to adjust air concentrations for sampling temperature. Correcting this error changes air concentrations significantly relative to those reported in the published article. This correction also changes some of the conclusions reported in the original article.
Due to the impact of this correction on the reported findings, all authors retract the original article. The original article was published on November 20, 2014, and retracted on June 29, 2016.
The paper has been cited three times.
If the journal does republish the two papers shortly, it resembles a trend we’ve seen in other journals by JAMA, which has recently begun to “retract and replace” articles affected by honest error, not misconduct.
The papers have four authors in common: Brian Smith, Lane Tidwell, Kevin Hobbie and Anderson, all based at Oregon State University.
Update: 7/11/16 10.43 a.m. eastern: An editor from the journal has informed us that the updated version of the Deepwater Horizon spill paper was published on July 8.
Update: 7/21/16 12.15 p.m. ET: The journal has now informed us that the updated version of the fracking paper was published on July 11.
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