In an alarming new study, University of Pittsburgh researchers revealed that pregnant mothers who live in close proximity to fracking wells are more likely than their counterparts, who live farther away, to have babies with lower birth weights.

Low birth weight is associated with medical problems later in life, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Photo credit: Derek Swanson/Flickr

Perinatal Outcomes and Unconventional Natural Gas Operations in Southwest Pennsylvania was published last week in the journal PLOS ONE. Hailing from Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health, the researchers investigated birth outcomes for 15,451 babies born between 2007 and 2010 in three counties in the fracking-heavy state of Pennsylvania: Washington, Westmoreland and Butler.

"Mothers whose homes fell in the top group for proximity to a high density of such wells were 34 percent more likely to have babies who were 'small for gestational age' than mothers whose homes fell in the bottom 25 percent," states a summary of the report's conclusions. "Small for gestational age refers to babies whose birth weight ranks them below the smallest 10 percent when compared to their peers."

Low birth weight is associated with medical problems later in life, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The researchers say these findings held up even when numerous other factors were taken into account, including prenatal care, education, age and birthing history. They emphasized that the study does not definitively prove a causal relationship between fracking wells and low birth weights, but is certainly cause for concern—and further investigation.

"Our work is a first for our region and supports previous research linking unconventional gas development and adverse health outcomes," said co-author Dr. Bruce Pitt, chair of Pitt Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. "These findings cannot be ignored. There is a clear need for studies in larger populations with better estimates of exposure and more in-depth medical records."

The paper follows numerous scientific findings that fracking poses severe human health and environmental hazards, from contaminated drinking water to earthquakes. A separate study published in April by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that homes and buildings closer to Pennsylvania fracking sites had a higher concentration of the carcinogenic gas radon.

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