Op-ed: Refund Due for Pitt’s Poor Work

By Sen. Gene Yaw (R-23)

Late this summer, the University of Pittsburgh released the so-called findings of a “study” by the School of Public Health examining the health impacts of shale gas development in southwestern Pennsylvania. The study, funded by a $2.5 million state grant under contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Health in 2020, is inherently and deliberately misleading and disingenuous.

In what was supposed to be a scientific undertaking, the University commissioned lead researcher, Dr. Evelyn O. Talbott, who has publicly expressed opposition to natural gas in the past, to complete their study. Dr. Talbott tipped her hand in 2021 when she stated her support for increased setback distances at a Penn State Public Health Forum. Despite what was widely suggested, the report did not demonstrate any causation from unconventional shale development to any of the health risks studied, such as childhood cancers, asthma, and birth conditions.

Authors refused site tours offered to them prior to conducting the study, claiming they were well versed in drilling and production techniques. They exerted no effort at all to understand the issue of natural gas development or talk to any experts. Instead, the entirety of the study was based upon a review of old documents in databases and surveys mailed to homeowners that had a less than stellar response.

Even the terminology used in the report shows that the authors either did not have a comprehensive understanding of the drilling process or were seeking to deliberately mislead the public by using the wrong choice of words. A clear example of this is the use of the term “frack site.” Hydraulic fracturing of a gas well is a process which takes about one week, after which all the equipment is cleared from the site. There is no evidence whatsoever that any health issues attributed to a “frack site” occurred in the one week when activity was taking place, nor does the report attempt to mention or correlate the length of exposure with any particular health outcome.

Among the most egregious flaws of the study are its benchmarking sites. Researchers made proximal associations using skewed measurements without attempting to account for other factors that impact health. In other words, the study only evaluated whether proximity to natural gas sites were a determining factor of health impacts, and its authors chose to ignore critical factors like weather, work, air dispersion, lifestyle choices and other sources.

Many more significant caveats have been lost in the noise of this study and I believe we must call into question the process being used to conduct important public health research and the legitimacy of their results. Prioritizing public health and safety is possible while conducting fact-based, objective analyses. They are not mutually exclusive.

The University of Pittsburgh should be embarrassed to have their name attached to this work. Pennsylvania taxpayers deserve a refund.


Sen. Gene Yaw was elected to represent the 23rd Senatorial District consisting of Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Tioga, and Union counties. He serves as chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Elizabeth Weitzel


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