Fracking Operations Linked to Low Birth Weight: Study

The findings of new research suggest that women who live near fracking operations may be more likely to give birth to children with low birth weight, raising further concerns about the potential impacts of the controversial gas extraction wells. 

In a study published this month in the scientific journal PLOSOne, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh indicate that pregnant women who live near what are known as hydraulic fracturing operations generally delivered babies with a lower birth weight when compared to women who did not leave near the fracking wells while pregnant.

Fracking involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and fluids, which the gas industry has fought to keep secret, into the ground at extremely high pressure, cracking shale deposits and freeing trapped natural gas, which can then be removed. Those fluids are then sucked from the ground and often disposed of in wastewater wells.

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The controversial process has come under increasing scrutiny over the last several years, as it has become an increasingly popular method of gas extraction with the development of new drilling techniques and the discovery of large shale reserves.

Critics have linked fracking to a variety of environmental problems, including pollution of from groundwater sources and increased truck traffic, as well as other concerns that can reduce property values and may sicken nearby residents.

Researchers in this latest report noted that other studies have already linked fracking operations to an increase in air pollutants, which in turn can create oxidative stress, which is believed to cause low birth weight and other problems.

The researchers pointed to a study in Colorado that revealed that those living within half a mile of a fracking well faced increased benzene exposure, as well as a study that found an increased risk of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects to children whose mothers were exposed to fracking operations as well.

In their own study, researchers looked at data on 15,451 births in southwest Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2010. They looked at where the mothers lived in relation to fracking wells and how many such wells were in the vicinity.

The findings suggest that women who lived closest to multiple wells had a 34% increased chance of giving birth to a baby with low birth weight. The researchers say that number comes after accounting for other factors that can affect a newborn’s weight, such as whether the mother smoked, the prenatal care she received, and the infant’s gender, among others.

“Although neither the route (water, air or soil) of exposure nor etiologic agents could be addressed, this study is among the first to report a human health effect associated with hydrofracturing,” the researchers concluded. “The embryo/fetus is particularly sensitive to the effects of environmental agents, which can have significant lifetime consequences; therefore, further investigation appears warranted.”

The study’s findings came out at about the same time that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report admitting that fracking operations can cause water pollution, but that such contamination has not yet occurred in a widespread manner.

Fracking Health Concerns

Environmentalists, a number of lawmakers, local communities and consumer advocacy groups have expressed concerns for years that hydrofracking presents a threat to groundwater supplies and the environment.

The state of New York decided to ban some hydraulic fracturing late last year, after a state study found questions and concerns regarding the safety of large-scale extraction wells.

State officials said that a six-year study’s findings indicate dozens of significant potential adverse impacts, and found that the risks of high-volume hydraulic fracturing outweigh any potential economic benefits. That ban is expected to be expanded following a final version of that report released last month.

Last year, a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million in damages to a family who sued a hydraulic fracturing company for being a public nuisance. According to allegations raised in a fracking lawsuit filed by the Parr family, nearly two dozen wells near their property caused a private nuisance, exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered property value.

Recently, a number of studies have shown that there may be a link between fracking and earthquakes, suggesting that the intense pressure from the unidentified fluids can cause ground tremors violent enough to damage property and cause injuries and possibly deaths.

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