Living Near Oil and Gas Wells Linked to Low Birthweight in Babies
By Nina Lakhani
Living near active oil and gas wells during pregnancy increases the risk of low-birthweight babies, especially in rural areas, according to the largest study of its kind.
Researchers analyzed the records of nearly 3 million births in California to women living within 6.2 miles (10km) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. It is the first such study to look at birth outcomes in rural and urban areas, and to women living near active and inactive oil and gas sites.
Proximity to a well and the level of production were found to be significantly associated with poor birth outcomes.
Specifically, the study found that in rural areas, pregnant women residing within a mile (1km) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to have babies with low birthweights and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age compared with people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only.
Even among full-term births, babies born to mothers living close to wells were on average 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller than those of their counterparts.
Newborns are deemed to have low birthweight when they weigh less than 5lb and 8oz. It can lead to multiple short-term development issues as small babies often struggle to eat, gain weight and fight infections. Studies also suggest small- and low-birthweight babies are more likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and intellectual and developmental disabilities in later life.
About one in 12 babies in the US have a low birthweight.
The study found a link between oil and gas wells and small babies born in urban areas, but it was significantly less marked than in rural communities. Differences in air quality, maternal occupation and housing conditions may have contributed to the urban-rural divide.
The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth, heart defects and low birthweight.
Nationwide, oil and gas production has risen significantly in recent years thanks to the expansion of non-conventional, hyper-polluting extraction techniques such as fracking. In 2011, during Barack Obama's first term in office, the US surpassed Russia as the world's largest natural gas producer, and in early 2018 it overtook Saudi Arabia as the leading producer of crude oil, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Active and inactive oil and gas sites create myriad environmental hazards including air and water pollutants, noise and excessive lighting, which have all been linked with poor health outcomes.
"Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active [oil and gas] well activities and where people live, go to school and play," said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper.
"This scientific evidence of adverse health effects facing vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, should be taken into account as Californians debate the extent to which we want to expand oil and gas drilling in our state."
Four of America's 10 largest oil fields are in California. However, oil production in California has declined over the past three decades, and generally the state has older, more conventional oil and gas sites than other parts of the US, and a larger number of inactive sites.
But many of the sites in California also use newer techniques such as fracking and steam and water injection to access hard-to-reach oil reserves, said the study's co-author Kathy Tran, a graduate student in environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley.
"Because researchers don't have direct access to the actual oil and gas sites, it's hard to get a good estimate of what people actually experience," said Tran. "The more in-depth exposure assessment we can get, the more we can really understand why we are seeing the [birth outcome] effects that we see."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.