Study: Babies With Low Birth Weights More Likely Near Pennsylvania Fracking Sites

By Steve Horn

A new study published in the journal Science Advances has concluded that babies born within two miles of sites of fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale basin are more likely to have low birth weights.

Researchers from Princeton, the University of Chicago and UCLA analyzed a decade of Pennsylvania birth data from 2004 to 2013—reviewing 1.1 million birth certificates—and concluded that those babies born to mothers living in close proximity to fracking sites are more likely to weigh under 5.5 pounds at birth. Specifically, the study concluded that babies born within a kilometer (just over half a mile) of fracking sites are 25 percent more at risk of low birth weights, which comes with other health effects.

"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 UCLA researcher Katherine Meckel in a press release.

Why a study of the prenatal population, say, as opposed to other members of society? Because, as the researchers explain, it offers a localized and controlled set of data, both of which are key to establishing data correlations and trends.

"First, there is increasing evidence that the fetus is vulnerable to a range of maternal pollution exposures. Second, because the fetus is in utero for at most 9 months, it is possible to pinpoint the timing of potential exposure," wrote the researchers. "This is not the case with other possible health effects, such as cancer, that develop over long periods of time. Moreover, birth data are available with precise information on mothers' residential locations, permitting researchers to examine the effects of proximity to fracturing sites on the health of newborns."

The major caveat of the study is that beyond distances of roughly two miles, health impacts of this sort become negligible. That led the researchers to conclude that health impacts of fracking for babies in utero are largely a local affair.

"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 study co-author Michael Greenstone, an economics professor and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, in a press release. "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."

The study points to other research which has concluded that low birth weight can lead to, at worst, infant mortality, but also attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, lower test scores, lower schooling attainment and lower earnings, among other things.

Locations of births and fractured wells in Pennsylvania.Currie, Greenstone, Meckel, Sci. Adv. 2017; 3: e1603021

What the study does not do, however, is pinpoint what aspect of the drilling procedure is actually causing these health impacts. Lead author Janet Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, told InsideClimate News that a necessary follow-up study would include air monitoring at fracking sites.

The study comes years after a battle over setbacks in Denton, Texas, a city in which citizens pushed the city council to place fracking wells at least 1,200 feet, or less than a quarter mile away, from homes. After the council refused to do so and passed a compromise ordinance instead, the city's citizens voted successfully to ban the process in the 2014 midterm elections. The ban was quickly challenged in court by the oil and gas industry and the Texas General Land Office and then reversed by the Texas Legislature.

The oil and gas industry, particularly industry front group Energy in Depth, has pointed to the push for drilling setbacks as a "de facto ban" of fracking. But Currie told InsideClimate News that fracking setbacks may be a key public health policy measure pursued in the years ahead.

Food and Water Watch, a proponent of a fracking ban, did in fact point to the study's findings to argue for a fracking ban.

"This study adds to the existing scientific literature that tells us there are serious public health consequences linked to fracking," Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch's executive director, said in a statement. "Political leaders who wish to protect the health and safety of residents must make a commitment to end fracking immediately."

Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.

Show Comments ()

Silver Nanoparticles in Clothing Wash Out, May Be Toxic

By Sukalyan Sengupta and Tabish Nawaz

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Keep reading... Show less
4.4 million premature air pollution deaths could be avoided in Kolkata if emissions are reduced swiftly this century. M M / CC BY-SA 2.0

Study Finds Timely Emissions Reductions Could Prevent 153 Million Air Pollution Deaths This Century

One of the roadblocks to swift action on climate change is the human brain's tendency to focus on threats and stimuli that are an obvious and noticeable part of their everyday lives, rather than an abstract and future problem, as Amit Dhir explained in The Decision Lab.

Now, a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that acting quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions would also reduce the air pollution that is already a major urban killer, thereby saving millions of lives within the next 40 years.

Keep reading... Show less
Lands threatened by BLM's March 2018 sale include Hatch Point. Neal Clark / SUWA

Trump Administration Sells Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah National Monuments

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.

Keep reading... Show less
Katharine Hayhoe talks climate communication hacks at the Natural Products Expo West Convention. Climate Collaborative

Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change

By Katie O'Reilly

Katharine Hayhoe isn't your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech's University's Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Kids' web series Global Weirding, rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe's arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.

Keep reading... Show less
Rising Tide NA / Twitter

Kinder Morgan Pipeline Protest Grows: Arrests Include a Greenpeace Founder, Juno-Nominated Grandfather

By Andy Rowell

Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you cannot stop taking action for what you believe in. And Monday was a case in point. Two seventy-year-olds, still putting their bodies on the line for environmental justice and indigenous rights.

Early Monday morning, the first seventy-year-old, a grandfather of two, and former nominee for Canada's Juno musical award, slipped into Kinder Morgan's compound at one of its sites for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline and scaled a tree and then erected a mid-air platform with a hammock up in the air.

Keep reading... Show less

The Grapes of Trash

By Marlene Cimons

German monk and theologian Martin Luther probably said it best: "Beer is made by men, wine by God." It's true—the world loves its wine. Americans, in fact, downed close to a billion gallons of it in 2016. But winemakers create a lot of waste when they produce all that vino, most of it in seeds, stalks and skins.

Keep reading... Show less

Why Mike Pompeo Could Be Even Worse for the Environment Than Rex Tillerson

By Kelle Louaillier

As Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was one of the most blatant revolving-door cases in the Trump administration and a clear sign that Trump's government was of, by and for the fossil fuel industry. But make no mistake: Mike Pompeo could be far worse.

Keep reading... Show less
Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino. Ol Pejeta Conservancy

World's Last Male Northern White Rhino Dies

The world's last male northern white rhino has died, leaving only two females left to save the subspecies from extinction, the wildlife conservancy taking care of him announced Tuesday.

The 45-year-old rhinoceros, named Sudan, was euthanized Monday at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!