New Study Finds Worrisome Pattern of Birth Defects in Fracking Communities

Science has long known that the developing fetus is sensitive to experiences of the mother – alcohol consumption, dietary factors, and mercury exposure are some of the more well-known examples.  This sensitivity makes newborn babies an early indicator of something going wrong in the environment of the mother.  Unfortunately, a team of researchers found preliminary evidence of something gone wrong when they looked at the patterns of birth defects in newborn babies in Colorado.  The researchers found that babies whose mothers lived in close proximity to multiple oil and gas wells were 30% more likely to be born with defects in their heart than babies born to mothers who did not live close to oil and gas wells.

As a public health scientist, this finding raises alarm bells and leads to many questions.  This is the first published peer reviewed study realistically examining whether people living near sites where fracking has occurred are experiencing more health impacts.  The fact that it found a statistically significant association, is very worrisome especially in combination with early reports of similar findings from a study in Pennsylvania. Although these types of studies can’t tell us definitively that pollution from oil and gas wells is the cause of the elevated birth defects, the findings of this study are like a flashing light saying something is going on here and we need to take action to make sure our most vulnerable are protected.  In fact, it is studies like this one that have ultimately led to the understanding we now have of how to protect pregnant women and ensure healthier babies.

Studies like this one are a first stab at understanding complex relationships between the environment and human health.  By examining this study, and supporting investments in further scientific evaluations, we can shed some light on questions about the potential health impacts of oil and gas development using fracking. Here’s a closer look:

What science is the study based on?

This study uses well established methods to examine the relationship between where a mom lives while she’s pregnant and the health of her baby.  It also builds upon research that has found that women exposed to chemicals, such as benzene and solvents, and air pollution are at greater risk of the types of birth defects analyzed in this study. 

How did the researchers tackle the problem?

The team of public health scientists, from the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University, used sophisticated mapping and statistical methods to look at how the rates of different birth defects and conditions compared between women who lived in an area (10 mile radius of their homes) with a high amount of oil and gas wells, women who lived in area with less oil and gas development, and women who lived in an area with no oil and gas development.  This classification took into account how close the woman lived to a well and also how many wells there were.  Therefore, the women who were in the “high category” were both living at shorter distances to wells and also had more wells in the vicinity of their homes.  In the babies, the researchers looked at three different types of birth defects (problems with the heart, nervous system, and mouth) and two different conditions (preterm birth and low birth weight) that can be linked to health problems for children.

What did they find?

The strongest finding in the study, in terms of statistical significance, was that women who lived close to many oil and gas wells had a higher rate of babies born with defects in their hearts than women who lived in areas with no oil and gas wells.  The findings of the study also suggest that there could be a trend of increasing risk of these effects as you go from no oil and gas wells to the “high” areas.  There was weaker evidence suggesting a possible relationship with defects to the nervous system but because the number of babies born with this defect was so low it was much harder for the researchers to tease out the relationship.  For the other impacts, oral defects, low birth weight and preterm birth, they did not find consistent relationships that held up to multiple statistical tests and the researchers concluded that their study did not provide evidence of an association with proximity to oil and gas wells. 

What could be causing the association they found?

A study like this one does not analyze the factors that could be causing the relationship.  However, the researchers discuss evidence from other studies that provide insight into what could be behind the pattern they found.  This evidence includes studies on pollution from oil and gas wells and also studies about the impact of certain types of pollution and chemicals on the developing fetus.  On the pollution side, there is evidence that in the development phase, using hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), and in the production phase, oil and gas wells result in emissions of chemicals like benzene and also air pollution from diesel engines. This has resulted in elevated levels of these pollutants in the air where people live.  At the same time, a number of studies conducted in other areas, with other sources of the same pollutants, have documented associations between exposure to these types of pollutants and birth defects. There are other known causes for these types of birth defects and, while the researchers were able to factor some of these into their study, it is possible that other factors besides the oil and gas wells could explain the pattern the researchers found.  Further studies, particularly ones that better characterize the type, emissions, and levels of pollutants near oil and gas sites, will be needed to better understand the question of what “caused” the association.

What questions need further study?

This study raises a lot of questions about what could be going on in the environment around oil and gas wells and points to the urgent need for further studies that measure what communities who live in areas of extensive oil and gas development are exposed to.  Further studies are needed to determine what types of contaminants might be present, where the pollution might be coming from, and how far it travels. 

What does this study say about the safety of fracking?

This study confirms that there are serious concerns about health risks of living near fracking sites and that much more research is needed to fully understand the risks and how, and if, they can be mitigated. The findings of this study suggest that the explosion of oil gas development in close proximity to people’s homes and without adequate assessment, monitoring, and pollution controls could be resulting in harm to human health. The use of hydraulic fracturing is a factor both in driving up the number of wells the women in this study are living close to and also in increasing the potential for pollution from the wells.   Although we can’t pinpoint from a study like this what exact part of the oil and gas development process is the culprit, we must not ignore the warning this study provides.  To protect the most vulnerable, we need to ensure that oil and gas development is not contaminating our environment and threatening the health of communities. 

In short: the findings of this study are a red flag that we need to know more about the risks from fracking operations. People living in neighboring communities deserve answers about the dangers and protections for their health and safety. And our country must stop pursuing reckless, ever-expanding fracking unless, and until, we can ensure the health and safety of all Americans.