Natural Gas Fracking Wells May Cause High-Risk Pregnancy, Premature Birth for Area Residents: Study

Researchers from Johns Hopkins warn that pregnant women living near natural gas hydraulic fracturing wells may face an increased risk of complications and be more likely to give birth prematurely. 

More commonly known as fracking, natural gas hydraulic fracturing 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.

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. However, critics have linked fracking to a variety of pollutants, claiming it puts groundwater sources at risk and that increased truck traffic, air pollution and other problems can reduce property values and sicken nearby residents.

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In a study published late last month in the medical journal Epidemiology, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicate that pregnant women face both an increased risk of premature birth when living in areas of intense natural gas extraction wells, and also are more likely to have their pregnancy determined to be “high risk” by an obstetrician.

Researchers highlighted the findings as signs that there have been insufficient studies of the side effects of fracking, as the process is known.

“The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are,” study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the school’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, said in a press release. “More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.”

The study looked at electronic health record data on 9,348 mothers who gave birth to nearly 11,000 children in the Geisinger Health System from January 2009 through January 2013, looking at how close the expectant mother was to a fracking well during her pregnancy, as well as birth weight, the rate of preterm births and other factors.

Researchers found that pregnant women who lived closest to fracking operations faced a 40% increased chance of preterm birth, and a 30% increased chance of being designated as a high risk pregnancy.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), complications from preterm births were responsible for 35% of all infant deaths in 2010, making it the leading cause of infant deaths. It is also considered the leading cause of long-term neurological problems in children and is estimated to cost the U.S. health care system more than $26 billion in 2005 alone, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

It is unclear why being in proximity to the fracking wells, which some say cause both air and water quality problems, led to the preterm births, according to the researchers.

“Now that we know this is happening we’d like to figure out why,” Schwartz said. “Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They’re the two leading candidates in our minds at this point.”

Stress is seen as a potential factor because construction and transportation of products to and from the wells leads to significant increases in heavy truck traffic in those areas. In many cases, once rural and quiet countryside is suddenly stripped for acres, new roads are laid down, and then regular truck traffic is established to and from the wells, which are often dug in clusters.

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.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that some hydraulic fracturing has resulted in polluted water supplies. However, the agency noted that the problem was not yet widespread. It also noted that it lacked sufficient evidence to truly understand how widespread the problem may be.

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 this Spring.

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.

Recent research has also linked fracking wells to an unprecedented increase in powerful earthquakes across the South and Midwest. U.S. government geologists now say that Oklahoma suffers more earthquakes than California, due entirely to hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.


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