Something Else to Avoid When You’re Pregnant: Fracking

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A new study has found that babies born closer to hydraulic fracturing had lower birth weights than those born farther away. The researchers think this has to do with pollution.

Published in the journal Sciences Advances Wednesday, researchers analyzed all Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2013, ending up with about 270,000 children whose mothers lived within roughly nine miles of an active well. The closer they lived, the higher the chance of a negative health outcome: A child born within two-thirds of a mile from a well was 25 percent more likely to be born underweight than one at least nine miles away.


“Given the growing evidence that pollution affects babies in utero, it should not be surprising that fracking, which is a heavy industrial activity, has negative effects on infants,” said co-author Janet M. Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, in a press release.

Image Courtesy of Science Advances

A baby with a low birth weight weighs less than 5.5 pounds. The child can be born healthy, but they’ve also been shown to experience an increased likelihood of diabetes and even lower earnings later in life. Science has already shown that pollution can lead to low birth weights among newborns, but this just drills in the dangers of living near these industrial sites.

According to the article, the health impacts are highly local. Once a family lives more than a mile or so away from a well site, impacts decrease. Low birth weights are most concentrated within two-thirds of a mile of a fracking site, but the study highlights that births to black mothers were, too. Fewer black families saw a new family member enter the home past the 2/3-mile mark. This was because more wells eventually popped up closer to black mothers’ homes as companies began to bring their operations closer to urban areas like Pittsburgh.


Researchers did include other factors such as age, race, and education when crunching these numbers. These are other social elements known to impact infant birth weight.

Fracking helps pull natural gas out of the ground by injecting it with a number of chemicals, like benzene, and water to help fissure the shale rock. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that the process can pollute local water sources. Another study has documented high levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons near fracking wells, which is where the injection occurs.


Few other studies have analyzed such a large sample size, but that doesn’t mean this study is airtight. It has its weaknesses, too. For one, the sample size of children exposed to air pollution could be larger. The final size is limiting, according to the study. It’s also unable to find what a child’s actual exposure to air pollution is, so this is based on “potential exposure to pollution.” Not actual exposure. Plus, the study did not look at how the infants may be exposed to this pollution. Is it through the water their mother drank? The air the mother breathed?

Like most other empirical research, questions remain. But given the lack of study on how fracking is affecting human health, any new information is valuable. After all, the new administration is obsessed with natural gas and is already trying to remove regulations on its extraction.


“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 co-author Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said in a press release.

Some states (like Maryland) and counties (especially throughout California) have moved forward on fracking bans out of fear of the unknown. Now, others can move forward with a bit more evidence of the risks.


Senior staff writer, Earther. The one who "pulls the race card" in the name of environmental justice. You dig?

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