Fracking linked to low infant birth weights

Is this any way to live? A subdivision in Erie, CO is surrounded by gas drilling. [Photo credit: Ted Wood/The Story Group]

A new study published December 13, in the journal Science Advances, finds that health risks increase for infants born to mothers living near sites where natural gas drilling and fracking occur.

Hydraulic fracturing and infant health: New evidence from Pennsylvania

The study concluded that babies born within 3 kilometers of natural gas fracking sites in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale basin are more likely to have low birth weights.

Janet Currie, Michael Greenstone and Katherine Meckel co-authored the study. Using records from more than 1.1 million births across Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013, the research team compared infants born to mothers living near a drilling site to those living farther away from a site. The records included health information such as birth weight, as well as personal data on the mothers, including home addresses. The researchers compared the home addresses to locations of 7,700 fracking wells throughout the state. The majority of the fracking sites were developed after 2009, allowing the team to observe any changes in health before and after the introduction of fracking in specific areas.

[Source: J. Currie, M. Greenstone and K. Meckel/Science Advances 2017]

The most significant finding was that babies born within 1 kilometer of a well site were 25 percent more likely to be low birth weight (5.5 pounds and under), leaving them at greater risk of infant mortality, ADHD, asthma, lower test scores, lower schooling attainment and lower lifetime earnings. The babies were also more likely to score lower on a standard index of infant health, the study showed.

“We have pretty good evidence of a causal effect of health outcomes and fracking — not just a correlation,” said lead author Janet Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

Infants born to mothers living between 1 and 2 kilometers saw their risk of low birth weight decrease by about a half to a third. Infants born to mothers living beyond 3 kilometers experienced little to no impact to their health.

“There is little evidence for health effects at distances beyond 3 km, suggesting that health impacts of fracking are highly local,” the researchers conclude.

“This study provides the strongest large-scale evidence of a link between the pollution that stems from hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies,” said co-author Michael Greenstone, an economist and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Unlike previous studies, researchers also looked at scenarios with siblings where one child was not exposed to any fracking sites, while the other was born near a fracking site as a means of control for genetic factors. Only 594 infants exposed to fracking had unexposed siblings, but the data was still helpful to draw an additional comparison, which showed that exposed infants were smaller than their unexposed siblings.

Being able to compare babies born in the same community but living at different distances from fracking wells was key, Currie said. “They have the same racial composition, the same education — it’s all people living in rural areas, for the most part. So we’re comparing apples to apples.”

The study’s authors noted two specific reasons for focusing on infant health in relation to fracking. The first was that there is a growing body of evidence showing that the fetus is vulnerable to a range of maternal pollution exposures, but definitive conclusions in relation to fracking have not yet been determined. Because a fetus is in utero for up to nine months researchers were able to determine the exact time frame for potential exposure, as opposed to studies of cancer cases, in which the condition progresses over a long period of time.

“Given the growing evidence that pollution affects babies in utero, it should not be surprising that fracking, which is a heavy industrial activity, has negative effects on infants,” said Currie. “These results suggest that hydraulic fracturing does have an impact on our health, though the good news is that this is only at a highly localized level. Out of the nearly 4 million babies born in the United States each year, about 29,000 of them are born within about a half mile of a fracking site.”

Is it air or water pollution?

Researchers believe the exposure could be a result of either air pollution caused by fracking, or through wastewater with fracking fluids.

“While we know pollution from hydraulic fracturing impacts our health, we do not yet know where that pollution is coming from — from the air or water, from chemicals onsite, or an increase in traffic,” said study co-author Katherine Meckel, assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Until we can determine the source of this pollution and contain it, local lawmakers will be forced to continue to make the difficult decision of whether to allow fracking in order to boost their local economies — despite the health implications — or ban it altogether, missing out on the jobs and revenue it would bring.”

Robert Jackson, a hydrogeologist at Stanford University who was not involved with the study, told InsideClimate News: “It’s surprising, a decade after this all started, that we don’t have much data. We still have so little information about air quality and water quality monitoring around these sites.”

The study’s results suggest that a pregnant mother and her unborn child’s “exposure from proximity” could be the cause of low birth weight and adverse health effects, but further research is still needed. Future studies could include obtaining urine samples from pregnant women living near fracking sites to better determine the relationship between exposure and newborn health.

“The development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is considered the biggest change to the global energy production system in the last half-century. However, several communities have banned fracking because of unresolved concerns about the impact of this process on human health,” wrote the study authors.

Study’s co-authors touted economic benefits of fracking

It should be noted that this study arrives on the heels of previous work by Currie and Greenstone on the local economic benefits, which found the average household living near a hydraulic fracturing site benefits by as much as $1,900 per year. This was because of a 7 percent increase in average income, driven by rises in wages and royalty payments, a 10 percent increase in employment, and a 6 percent increase in housing prices. However, the authors cautioned that the housing prices could change if further information about the environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing were revealed.

The Local Economic and Welfare Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing — December 2016

In fact Currie and Greenstone addressed the economics as it relates to their current Pennsylvania study.

“Housing prices are not fixed; they are based on many factors including how well the job market is and how safe the area is to live in,” Currie said. “As these results and others on the health impacts from hydraulic fracturing become mainstreamed into the consciousness of homeowners and home buyers, the local economic benefits could decrease.”

“As local and state policymakers decide whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in their communities, it is crucial that they carefully examine the costs and benefits, including the potential impacts from pollution,” said Greenstone. “This study provides the strongest large-scale evidence of a link between the pollution that stems from hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies.”

In statements published in the Denver Post, Greenstone seems conflicted about the results of the study, expressing concern at how the information will be interpreted by the various factions.

“I think I was surprised by the magnitude of the impact within the half mile radius,” said Michael Greenstone ….

… There are about 4 million births per year in the United States, and according to the study’s research, about 30,000 births are within a half mile of a fracking site and 100,000 births are within two miles. “I don’t think that’s an insubstantial number,” Greenstone said.

Greenstone said it’s important to not read too much into the study’s conclusion. “I like to joke that there’s a little bit for everyone to hate in this paper,” he said. “There’s a big effect within one kilometer of sites, which the oil and gas industry dislikes, but the impact on the population beyond that may not be massive, which opponents of fracking won’t like.”

When Greenstone and his co-authors … embarked on the research, he said, the aim wasn’t to condemn fracking, which is a relatively new method of drilling vertically underground, then switching to a horizontal direction to reach gas trapped in shale rock formations …

… A U.S. Geological Survey study in 2014 said pumping wastewater into deeply buried storage wells was probably why Oklahoma was experiencing more small earthquakes than California. The sites are also known to leak methane, a gas that’s up to 100 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming in the atmosphere.

But those drawbacks are offset by the benefits of natural gas, Greenstone said. Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas “has led to a sharp increase in U.S. energy production and generated enormous benefits, including abruptly lower energy prices, stronger energy security and even lower air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by displacing coal in electricity generation.”

The authors hope that policymakers will use the study’s finding as a talking point in a robust debate over fracking. They chose to study Pennsylvania because they got access to birth record data that identified “the exact locations of the mothers and the wells,” Greenstone said. “This was like a great success of big data.”

Most drilling operations sit in remote areas where they have little chance of harming pregnant women.

But some sites in Pennsylvania are near Pittsburgh, and others in Texas are inside heavily populated Fort Worth. In Colorado, fracking operations can occur near suburban neighborhoods.

“Different communities are going to feel differently about this,” Greenstone said. “If you’re in Fort Worth, where fracturing is occurring in a dense area, you’re probably going to feel differently about it than if you’re in rural North Dakota” …

Setbacks are illusions of safety

Take from those statements what you will. Greenstone is either throwing the state and industry a bone by saying that fracking is ok as long as it’s far enough away (3 km) from humans, or else he’s “surprised” enough by the results that he is reconsidering the rosy cost benefit analysis from his study a year ago. Or maybe both.

Currie told InsideClimate News that fracking setbacks may be a key public health policy measure pursued in the years ahead.

As someone who has been living with the impacts of oil & gas development for almost 20 years, I shudder at the notion of setbacks. Setbacks establish arbitrary safe distances while ignoring the more complex issues involved with air pollution and water contamination (not addressed in this study), and pollution from oil & gas production other than fracking at well sites (e.g. processing plants, compressor stations, tank farms, flow lines) — to name just a few.

At the same time, that should not detract from the significance of the results. As study after study shows, the human costs far outweigh the economic benefits of natural gas development.

Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch’s Executive Director, summed it up in a statement: “This study adds to the existing scientific literature that tells us there are serious public health consequences linked to fracking. Political leaders who wish to protect the health and safety of residents must make a commitment to end fracking immediately.”

Let me put it another way, if I had could have paid $1,900 (Greenstone’s estimated benefit to local households from fracking) to keep fracking out of western Garfield County, I would have gladly forked over the cash. My medical bills cost me a helluva lot more than that.

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  1. Fracking linked to low infant birth weights — From the Styx by Peggy Tibbetts | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum. - December 17, 2017

    […] via Fracking linked to low infant birth weights — From the Styx by Peggy Tibbetts […]

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