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Study Links Hydraulic Fracturing to Premature Births

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A new scientific study concludes that pregnant women who live near hydraulic fracturing sites face an increased risk of giving birth prematurely, which can cause permanent learning disabilities in children.

Dr. Brian Schwartz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues  examined the electronic hospital records of more than 9,000 women in Pennsylvania who gave birth to almost 11,000 babies between 2009 and 2013.

The researchers plotted the women’s addresses on a map and compared them to the locations of fracking sites, which have multiplied across Pennsylvania and much of the U.S. over the last decade. The scientists found that the women who lived closest to the natural gas wells had a 40 percent greater chance of giving birth prematurely.

  “Our two main concerns about how this may have happened are that, first, unconventional natural gas development can affect air quality,” Schwartz said.  “And air quality has been associated with a number of pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and also low birth weight."

Schwartz added: “The other major concern about how this industry may be affecting pregnant woman health is that a drilling site is an industrial development.  It involves cutting down forests and building roads and a lot of heavy equipment and a lot of heavy truck traffic. On average, there are about 1,000 truck trips per well.  And so we think that these community changes – and how the people living in these areas perceive them – might be associated with stress.”

Schwartz said that other studies have linked stress to more premature births.  About 35 percent of all infant deaths are caused by premature birth, and pre-term birth is also a leading cause of long-term brain disabilities in children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Overall, preterm births cost the U.S. healthcare system more than $26 billion a year.

Hydraulic fracturing is the high-pressure injection of water, chemicals and sand into underground shale formations to crack the rock and release trapped natural gas and oil. 

Maryland has no fracking wells so far, and in April the General Assembly passed a two-year moratorium on fracking.  But in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and many other states, fracking and horizontal drilling have allowed a surge in oil and gas production that has driven down the price of gasoline and natural gas and given a boost to some industries. But the boom has also sparked a debate over possible links of fracking to earthquakes, air pollution, and water pollution.

The drilling industry rejects any claim that fracking is causing public health problems.   Nicole Jacobs, a writer for a pro-drilling blog called Energy in Depth, wrote that monitoring by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not found high levels of air pollution from fracking.

“DEP’s recent air monitoring in northeast Pennsylvania concluded that the state ‘did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities,’” Jacobs wrote.

 But Professor Schwartz and other experts argue that more research is needed into the question.

“There’s a number of studies that have been done around the country that have shown that previously pristine rural areas that never had a problem with air quality and air pollution before exceeded air pollution limits for air quality after the development of this industry,” Schwartz said.

Beyond just pollution are issues of noise, traffic, and social changes from drilling booms that could impact people’s quality of life, Schwartz said.

 “It’s the change that I think is important,” Schwartz said.  “Think about that.  You are living in a place where truck traffic was really quite unusual.  And now you have thousands of trucks, and a lot of new faces among the drilling workers coming to the area. It’s known that there are more traffic accidents in these areas, and there are more injuries and more emergency department visits.  So I think that it’s the large change in these areas (with hydraulic fracturing) and the perception of that that could be affecting health.”

 Right now, the health of the fracking industry itself isn’t good because a glut of production has led to a collapse in gas prices.  But that will change, and these issues are not going away.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.