Fracking associated with high risk pregnancies and premature babies: study

A rig drills for natural gas at a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) site  Washington Township, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013.
A rig drills for natural gas at a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) site Washington Township, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. Ty Wright/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Expectant mothers living near active hydraulic fracking natural gas wells have been found to be at an increased risk of  premature birth and for having high-risk pregnancies, according to a new study.

“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 study leader Brian Schwartz, a professor in the department of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For the study, published in the journal Epidemiology, Schwartz studied the records of 9,384 mothers in Pennsylvania who gave birth to 10,946 babies between January 2009 and January 2013. The authors also compared how close the pregnant women lived to active fracking sites.

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“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,” said Schwartz.

“Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.”

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Fracking is growing quickly in Canada and the United States.  According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “more than 215,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan.”

The process of fracking involves drilling down into the earth, then injecting highly-pressurized water, sand and chemicals to release the gas inside.

Researchers found that living “in the most active quartile of drilling and production activity was associated with a 40 per cent increase in the likelihood of a woman giving birth before 37 weeks of gestation (considered pre-term) and a 30 per cent increase in the chance that an obstetrician had labeled their pregnancy high-risk,” according to Johns Hopkins.

Global News contacted the petroleum industry associations in Canada and the United States; they did not provide any official reaction or statement to the study.  The American Petroleum Institute referred our questions to an industry consumer site put out by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

What is unclear is why these mothers are more at risk.

Schwartz said that increased noise, road traffic and other changes can increase maternal stress levels; another issue may be air quality.

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

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Dr. Schwartz is urging policy makers to be cautious on future wells.

“The first few studies have all shown health impacts,” Swartz said. “Policymakers need to consider findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward.”

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