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New, Major Evidence That Fracking Harms Human Health

New, Major Evidence That Fracking Harms Human Health

A child born very close to a well is likely to be smaller and less healthy than a child born farther away.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, may pose a significant—but very local—harm to human health, a new study finds. Mothers who live very close to a fracking well are more likely to give birth to a less healthy child with a low birth weight—and low birth weight can lead to poorer health throughout a person’s life.

The research, published Wednesday in Science Advances, is the largest study ever conducted on fracking’s health effects.“I think this is the most convincing evidence that fracking has a causal effect on local residents,” said Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University and one of the authors of the study.The researchers took the birth records for every child born in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013—more than 1.1 million infants in total—and looked at the mother’s proximity to a fracking site, using the state of Pennsylvania’s public inventory of fracking-well locations. They used private state records that showed the mother’s address, allowing them to pinpoint where every infant spent its nine months in utero.

 They found significant, but very local, consequences. Infants born to mothers who lived within two miles of a fracking well are less healthy and more underweight than babies born to mothers who lived even a little further away. Babies born to mothers who lived between three and 15 miles from a fracking well—that is, still close enough to benefit financially from the wells—resembled infants born throughout the rest of the state.
While birth weight may seem like just a number, it can affect the path of someone’s life. Children with a low birth weight have been found to have lower test scores, lower lifetime earnings, and higher rates of reliance on welfare programs throughout their lives. In a previous study, a different team of researchers examined twins in Norway whose birth weight diverged by 10 percent or more. The lighter twin was 1 percent less likely to graduate from high school and earned 1 percent less than their sibling through their life.“Hydraulic fracturing has widely dispersed benefits—we are all paying lower natural-gas bills for heating, we’re all paying lower electricity prices, we’re all paying less for cheaper gasoline at the pump. And even if health was all that you care about, we’re all benefitting from decreased air pollution thats widely dispersed, because coal plants are closing,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and another authors of the paper.
 But all those benefits, he said, were borne by the local communities that lived extremely close to hydraulic fracturing wells. “There’s this interesting trade off between the greater good and what are the costs and benefits for local communities,” he told me.
Oil and gas lobbying groups rushed to criticize the study. “This report highlights a legitimate health issue across America that has nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations.  It fails to consider important factors like family history, parental health, lifestyle habits, and other environmental factors and ignores the body of scientific research that has gone into child mortality and birthweight,” said Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization that represents the oil and gas industry.In the fracking study, researchers tried to separate the costs of fracking and socioeconomic status and parental health in several ways. First, they compared baby birthweight near fracking wells to those babies immediately around them, which they believe accounts for the wealth of various communities.Second, they found that the connection held for siblings who were or were not exposed to a fracking well. “We follow the same mother over time and ask whether on average, children born after fracking starts have worse outcomes than their siblings born before fracking starts,” Currie told me. “In this case, since we follow the same woman over time, we are controlling for her underlying characteristics.”

Babies who gestated near a well had a reliably lower birth weight than their siblings who were not exposed to the well.The researchers don’t yet know why this link between fracking and low birth weight exists, though they suggest that air pollution could be a possible contributor. The process of fracking may release chemicals into the air, for one, but many wells also run multiple diesel engines at once, and they can be a hub of local activity, with trucks regularly commuting to the sites.While environmental activists and some researchers have proposed that fracking chemicals may leak into groundwater, most studies have failed to find lasting and widespread water pollution near wells. The birth-weight study seems to suggest that air, not water, pollution may instead be the threat that fracking sites pose to human health.

Greenstone believes the next step for this research is to figure out exactly what is driving the babies’ low birth weight. “Is it the trucks? Is it the diesel generators?” he said. “If you knew the channel, you might be able to devise a light-touch regulatory approach.”

But he and Currie also believe more research is needed to figure out how fracking affects people outside the womb and later in their life. Such connections will be harder to distill, but may become easier as this kind of broad, data-based approach to environmental economics becomes more widespread.

   A fracking well in Colorado Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Source: The Atlantic

BY: Robinson Meyer

Updated on December 13 at 6:30 p.m.



   Another article in the Washington Post:      

Fracking sites may raise the risk of underweight babies, new study says

Living within half a mile of a hydraulic fracturing site carries a serious risk for pregnant women, a new study has found. The drilling technique, also known as fracking, injects high-pressure water laced with chemicals into underground rock to release natural gas.

Women who lived within that distance to fracking operations in Pennsylvania were 25 percent more likely to give birth to low-weight infants than were mothers who lived more than two miles beyond the sites.

The five-year study of more than 1.1 million births in the state between 2004 and 2013, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, also found lower birth weights, although not as low, in infants whose mothers lived between half a mile and two miles from a fracking site. Beyond two miles, there was no indication of any health effect to newborns, a significant drop-off, the study said.

There are about 4 million births per year in the United States. According to the study’s research, about 30,000 births are within half a mile of a fracking site and 100,000 are within two miles. “I don’t think that’s an insubstantial number,” Greenstone said.

People who want to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Maryland rally outside the statehouse and governor’s residence in Annapolis in March. (Brian Witte/AP)

Greenstone said it’s important not to read too much into the study’s conclusion. “I like to joke that there’s a little bit for everyone to hate in this paper,” he said. “There’s a big effect within one kilometer of sites, which the oil and gas industry dislikes, but the impact on the population beyond that may not be massive, which opponents of fracking won’t like.”

Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an advocacy group for the oil and gas industry, condemned the study, saying that while it addresses a legitimate health issue in the United States, it “fails to consider important factors like family history, parental health, lifestyle habits” and other factors that lead to low birth weight.

In his emailed statement, Porter did not address why those factors might have led to underweight babies near the sites but not farther from them.

“This study adds to existing scientific literature that tells us the serious health consequences linked to fracking,” the group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf [is] encouraging news drilling and expanding fossil fuel operations. We call on him to heed the science.”

When Greenstone and his co-authors — Janet Currie, a Princeton University economics professor, and Katherine Meckel, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles — embarked on the research, he said, the aim wasn’t to condemn fracking, which is a relatively new method of drilling vertically underground, then switching to a horizontal direction to reach gas trapped in shale rock formations.

The practice has come under scrutiny because of the potentially toxic chemicals used to crack the shale and the amount of water used to force out natural gas. State health officials and residents near fracking operations have complained that wastewater from fracking taints local drinking water. Companies in some cases have been forced to provide bottled drinking water for residents who relied on underground wells. A number of states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have banned fracking.

Gas is flared as waste from the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on near Buttonwillow, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)

But those drawbacks are offset by the benefits of natural gas, Greenstone said. Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas “has led to a sharp increase in U.S. energy production and generated enormous benefits, including abruptly lower energy prices, stronger energy security and even lower air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by displacing coal in electricity generation.”

The authors hope that policymakers will use the study’s finding as a talking point in a robust debate over fracking. They chose to study Pennsylvania because they got access to birth record data that identified “the exact locations of the mothers and the wells,” Greenstone said. “This was like a great success of big data.”

But some sites in Pennsylvania are near Pittsburgh, and others in Texas are inside heavily populated Fort Worth.

“Different communities are going to feel differently about this,” Greenstone said. “If you’re in Fort Worth, where fracturing is occurring in a dense area, you’re probably going to feel differently about it than if you’re in rural North Dakota.”

Read More:

Trump moves to suspend rule limiting a pollutant worse than carbon dioxide

With deep concerns over fracking, a Virginia county says no to gas drilling

Fracking could hurt air quality and workers health, a state report says

LINK:  read:


 More in the Los Angeles Times:
Babies born to moms who lived near fracking wells faced host of health risks, study suggests


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