The practice of drilling into the ground to release natural gas, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, first hit national headlines in 2011 when drinking water taps in fracking cities in Pennsylvania began to catch fire because flammable methane leaked into the ground. water supplies.
Since then, fracking has been linked to earthquakes in Oklahoma and a host of health problems. Fracking advocates say the practice has reduced energy costs and created thousands of jobs. But environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, say that for people who live near the sites, fracking can have serious effects on health, such as respiratory diseases and cancer.
A new study in the journal Science Advances found that babies born to women living near fracking sites in Pennsylvania were especially vulnerable to adverse health outcomes. “As local and state legislators decide whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in their communities, it is crucial that they carefully examine the costs and benefits,” said Michael Greenstone, co-author of the study and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in a press release. “This study provides the strongest evidence on a large scale of a link between the pollution that results from hydraulic fracturing activities and … the health of babies.”
The researchers analyzed vital statistics of more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013. They studied children born to women who lived 1 kilometer, or just over half a mile from fracking sites, as well as women who live less than 3 kilometers or less more than 2 miles, and women who live between 3 to 15 kilometers, or less than 2 to 9 miles away.
They discovered that fracking reduces the health of babies born to mothers who live less than 3 kilometers from a fracking site. But for mothers who live within 1 kilometer, the affects were acute. The probability of low birth weight, which means that the baby weighs less than 5.5 pounds, increased to 25 percent.
Studies show that low birth weight can cause infant mortality, asthma, lower scores in school-age exams, and lower earnings in adulthood. The study also found that mothers whose babies may have been exposed to nearby fracking sites tend to be younger, less educated and less likely to get married, factors that can also lead to poor child health.
But there are significant differences between mothers who give birth near fracking sites and those who do not. The black mothers included in the study were more likely to live closer to the fracking sites, exposing their babies to a higher risk of contamination. “This difference is due to the fact that over time, more wells were drilled near urban areas such as Pittsburgh, where a greater number of African Americans live,” the authors wrote. Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, has 63 active fracking wells. Many other fracking sites are located in low-income communities.
Nationwide, between July 2012 and June 2013, up to 65,000 babies were exposed to fracking contamination because their mothers lived less than 1 kilometer from a fracking site.
“Given the growing evidence that pollution affects babies in the womb,” said co-author Janet Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, “it should not be surprising that fracking has negative effects on babies” .