New research raises alarming concerns about impacts of oil and gas development on newborn babies

A Ph.D. student in Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University recently released a research paper with results from her investigation into the health of newborn babies born to mothers residing close to an unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania. The paper is a "work in progress" and has not yet been peer-reviewed. The peer review process is essential, but the author thought her findings were so important that they should be released before that process had been completed.

The author, Elaine Hill, compared the health of 2,347 newborns born to mothers living up to 1.5 miles of an existing Marcellus Shale well (drilled between 2006 and 2010) to the health of newborns born to mothers living a similar distance from a permitted well, as a control group. She used birth certificate records with exact addresses.

The quantitative analysis constrolled for other possible influences such as mother's education, age, race or ethnicity, receipt of Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) aid, method of payment for medical care, and whether she smoked during her pregnancy.

The investigation considered four health outcomes for newborns: low birth weight, premature birth, small for gestational age (SGA), and 5 minute APGAR scores. The APGAR score is a physician rating of heart rate, breathing effort, muscle tone, reflex initiability, and color. SGA is used to determine the immediate health care needs of the infant and is also increasingly used to predict longterm adverse health outcomes and potential exposure to environmental pollution.

The results suggest that exposure to natural gas development before birth:

  • increases the overall prevalence of low birth weight by 25 percent,
  • increases SGA by 17 percent,
  • reduces 5 minute APGAR scores,
  • had little impact on premature birth.

These are extraordinarily shocking findings. We hope the peer review process will proceed expeditiously.