A new study in Pennsylvania shows that expectant mothers who live near active natural gas wells are at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely and for having high-risk pregnancies.
The study, published online in the Journal Epidemiology on September 30, looked at the health records of 9,384 mothers who gave birth to 10,946 babies between January 2009 and January 2013. They compared that data with information about wells drilled for fracking and looked at how close they were to the homes of the pregnant mothers as well as what stage of drilling the wells were in, how deep the wells were dug and how much gas was being produced at the wells during the mothers’ pregnancies. Using this information, they developed an index of how active each of the wells were and how close they were to the women.
- Mothers living in the most active quartile of drilling and production activity had a
- 40% increase in the likelihood of giving birth before 37 weeks of gestation (considered pre-term) and a
- 30% increase in the chance that an obstetrician had labeled their pregnancy “high-risk,” a designation that can include factors such as elevated blood pressure or excessive weight gain during pregnancy.
Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist, and a group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland were interested in studying the health effects of living near a drilling or fracking site. The most logical state in which to do this is Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale is Ground Zero in the shale revolution.
- There is no public map or dataset of existing drilling sites, so the researchers went to an organization called SkyTruth and its FrackFinder Program, which “maps drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the United States using crowdsourced image analysis of aerial and satellite imagery.” In other words, the program trains volunteers to view satellite images and identify drilling sites.
The beauty of this is that the oil and gas industry has depended for years on keeping secrets. They come into a community and rely on spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. They purchase loyalty and silence, and work to encode this in the law. One of their tools is secrecy about well locations, which is a barrier to research.
Possible environmental factors in study outcome
The study is still not a “smoking gun” that explains why the pregnant women had worse outcomes near the most active wells. But Schwartz points out that every step of the drilling process has an environmental impact:
- When the well pads are created, diesel equipment is used to clear acres of land, transport equipment and drill the wells themselves.
- Drilling down thousands of feet and then horizontally many more thousands of feet requires heavy equipment to break up the shale where the gas sits.
- Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) then involves injecting millions of liters of water mixed with chemicals and sand to fracture the shale.
- The fluids are then pumped back to the surface.
- The gas itself also releases pollutants.
- Wells cause increased noise, road traffic and other changes that can increase maternal stress levels.
Schwartz speculates that air quality and stress are the two leading candidates for the results of the study, and points out that policymakers must understand there may be real risks as they make decisions on future wells. While the research is still in its infancy, Schwartz says everything that has come out so far should give decision makers cause for concern.
“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,” says Schwartz. “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….The first few studies have all shown health impacts. Policymakers need to consider findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward.”
This is exactly why we need local regulation along the Beartooth Front
These findings directly relate to local regulation proposed by landowners in Stillwater and Carbon counties along the Beartooth Front. These regulations address the issues raised by Schwartz as possible causes of adverse health outcomes:
- setbacks of wellheads from residences, which increases the distance that people live from fracking sites
- Testing of water, air and soil to make sure they are not contaminated
- Noise abatement
- Limits on truck traffic
The regulations are just common sense, and protect local residents from the proven dangers of living in close proximity to oil and gas drilling.