Adverse impacts of oil and gas drilling exposed

A natural gas drilling rig operates as natural gas piping rises from underground outside Rifle, Colorado [Reuters / George Frey]

A natural gas drilling rig in operation near Rifle, Colorado [Reuters/George Frey]

In the comments section of a previous post, Fiona Lloyd brought our attention to a study published last week which was conducted by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health. Results of the study indicate a higher risk of birth defects in infants born to mothers who live close to natural gas wells. The study focused on “rural areas and towns with populations of less than 50,000” in 57 Colorado counties. You can be certain Garfield County was one of them.

Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado

The Daily Sentinel: Link suggested between birth defects, drilling [FREE!]

Researchers analyzing Colorado data say the risk of two birth defects appears to increase with closer proximity of mothers to natural gas wells.

The study draws on data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but that department immediately distanced itself from the findings, calling them inconclusive and potentially misleading. The study also found a decrease in some birth-related health problems in cases of mothers living near wells.

The study was conducted mostly by researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health. It found that babies born to mothers living within a mile of at least 125 natural gas wells experienced a 30 percent greater prevalence of congenital heart defects, compared to those born to mothers living no closer than 10 miles from wells. It also found an association between mothers living within a mile of 125 or more wells and an increased occurrence of newborns’ neural tube defects, which affect the brain, spine or spinal cord …

… Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for the health department, acknowledged the public concern about the effects of oil and gas operations on public health, including birth outcomes.

“While this paper was an attempt to address those concerns, we disagree with many of the specific associations with the occurrence of birth defects noted within the study. Therefore, a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.

“As chief medical officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at the time of their pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect. Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”

Wolk cited study limitations including lack of knowledge of where mothers lived during the first trimester of pregnancy, when most birth defects occur. Noting the incongruity of decreased risk of certain problems that it found near wells, he called those findings “counterintuitive” and another thing that makes the study difficult to interpret.

He also noted that the study only found an association between certain defects and drilling, rather than a causal link, and he characterized the statistical differences in birth defects found in the study as being minuscule.

The criticisms by Wolk, an appointee of Gov. John Hickenlooper, drew criticism from Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action.

“That the Hickenlooper administration is telling pregnant women to ignore the study is an extremely worrisome position for the governor’s administration to take,” he said.

Wockner said the study elevates the argument for banning hydraulic fracturing in communities to better protect health and property values.

He said that for the administration to criticize peer-reviewed, scientific research is an “extremely dangerous precedent” …

Eco-Watch: New Study Shows Proximity to Fracking Sites Increases Risk of Birth Defects

… Gary Wockner, director of Clean Water Action’s Colorado program, had a more direct interpretation of the study.

“These findings suggest that fracking causes babies to be deformed—the more we learn about fracking, the worse it gets,” he said. “If you live near a fracking site and you want to have a healthy baby, you should consider moving”…

… “What’s most shocking is that this extremely dangerous industrial process of fracking has been allowed to occur with virtually no regulation and no study of the public health impacts,” Wockner said. “This study is revealing the terrible truth about fracking—it is a public health hazard, the breadth of which we are only beginning to know about” …

…Other findings and birth defects include:

  • Endocardial cushion defect
  • Pulmonary valve atresia and stenosis
  • “Births to mothers in the most exposed tertile (> 125 wells/mile) had a 30 percent greater prevalence of CHDs than those with no wells in a 10-mile radius.”

Wockner said a citizens’ revolt against fracking is ongoing near Denver, with cities of more than 400,000 people voting to effectively ban fracking. He believes these results will change that.

“The results of this study will continue to escalate that revolt, and rightly so,” he said. “Fracking is a dangerous industrial process that uses cancer-causing chemicals—it has absolutely no place near communities where families live, work and play.”

**********

When the industry and government officials, like county commissioners, are faced with the proven adverse health impacts of oil & gas drilling they fall back on the old canard that energy production is good for the local economy. However a study released last December (2013) by Headwaters Economics found that long-term oil & gas production is more like a curse to local economies because counties tend to sacrifice other business interests at the altar of oil & gas development. It’s called specialization.

Long-Term Energy Development Has Negative Impacts on Western Counties

According to this study even though the oil and gas boom in western states has increased the number of jobs in rural counties there is a distinct downside. Those same counties that reap the economic benefits of oil & gas production also have a decrease in per capita income, an increase in crime rates, and fewer adults with college educations.

Researchers reviewed data from 1980 to 2011, focusing on Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, which produce “more than 75 percent of crude oil and more than 95 percent of natural gas in the contiguous West,” according to the study. Researchers looked at the boom period from 1980 to 1982 “because it contained the highest share of personal income from oil and gas for each of the six major oil- and gas-producing states in the U.S.,” and compared those counties changes in per capita income, crime, and education from 1980 to 2011.

In counties that got more than 8 percent of their personal income from oil or gas in the 1980-82 boom and specialized in the field for more than 10 years, compared to similar counties with only one year of specialization, per capita income decreased by as much as $7,000. Those same counties saw a decline in educational attainment as the percentage of adults with a college education decreased by 2.5 percent. The longer the duration of oil and gas specialization, the higher the crime rate.

“These findings are consistent with other research that shows diminished socioeconomic benefit of resource extraction at the local level over time,” the researchers wrote. “The findings also support the theory that a resource curse has affected local areas that are specialized in oil and gas in the six energy-producing states in the U.S. West.”

personal income chart***********

Nothing is more compelling than the first-hand accounts from people who live near gas wells. Residents on the frontlines of fracking recounted their stories of illness, water contamination, and damage to their livelihoods due to dirty drilling operations in Shalefield Stories, a new booklet released last week by the Environment America Research & Policy Center. A common theme in this collection is illness.

Shalefield Stories cover“The symptoms reported in Shalefield Stories, including rashes, nausea, respiratory issues, and stress, mirror very closely what our health care professionals see in their examinations of residents and workers impacted by drilling operations here in southwestern Pennsylvania,” observed Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “These stories are important in helping us to identify and address the steps needed to protect the health of individuals living near these sites.”

Shalefield Stories

Shale Stories: Obama’s Clean Energy Future Is a Fracking Nightmare for Rural America

“Behind the alarming numbers that outline fracking’s environmental impacts, there are real people whose lives have been gravely impacted by these polluting practices,” said John Rumpler, Senior Attorney for Environment America Research & Policy Center. “These are their stories, and we would be wise to heed their words of warning on fracking.”

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