Nearby Fracking Linked to Low Birth Weights

From - December 13, 2017

Nearby Fracking Linked to Low Birth Weights

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 13, 2017 -- Newborn babies face a greater risk of health problems if they live close to a "fracking" site, a new large-scale study contends.

Women were 25 percent more likely to deliver low birth weight babies after hydraulic fracturing operations commenced within a half-mile of their homes, said the study's lead researcher, Janet Currie. She directs Princeton University's Center for Health and Well-Being.

Low birth weight babies have a greater risk for infant mortality, asthma and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the researchers. In addition, these children tend to do worse in school and have less successful careers in adulthood.

Low birth weights -- referring to babies who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth -- occurred most often among pregnant women living nearest to a fracking site, the investigators found.

"We found the effects fell off pretty rapidly, and by the time we were 3 kilometers [1.86 miles] away from the site, there was not any effect," Currie said. "The effect seems to be very local."

So, she suggested, "That means you could protect people's health by having a larger distance between where you have fracking and where people live."

Fracking -- or hydraulic fracturing -- is the process of mining for natural gas by pumping "fracking fluid" into underground shale rock formations, creating cracks through which gas can flow more freely.

Fracking fluid contains water and a host of other chemicals, prompting concerns by some that the process could lead to water and air pollution.

For the study, the researchers evaluated more than 1.1 million births that occurred in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013. The study team focused on specific fracking sites, comparing birth weights in nearby families before and after the operations started.

It's "by far the largest" study ever conducted regarding the potential health consequences of fracking, said Dr. Nate DeNicola. He's an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

"We always look for further studies to corroborate findings, but in all honesty it feels a little trite to say you need to delay a conclusion when you have this many patients involved," DeNicola said. "This study essentially shows a dose response between proximity to fracking sites and low birth weight."

Nonetheless, the study does not prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, said Seth Whitehead, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a public outreach campaign by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The study is "the latest in a long list of examples of reports linking fracking to health problems based on correlation rather than proof of causation," Whitehead said. "The authors admit a key limitation of their study is the fact that its conclusions are based on proximity rather than actual measurements of pollutants."

Previous studies on the health effects of fracking have compared the health of people living near sites against those living elsewhere.

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