The state of Pennsylvania has seen a rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing wells over the past decade. The process commonly known as fracking is a means of extracting natural gas from shale, using a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to break through layers of shale and release the gas. Over 8,000 fracking wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania.
A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins shows that increased exposure to these operations during pregnancy can result in preterm births. Babies born prematurely are at a high risk for a number of health complications, both short-term and later in life.
Many public health experts say that we don’t fully understand the risks of this rapid drilling expansion, particularly for the residents who live near these operations. But a few recent studies have started to fill in the gaps, and findings are worrisome.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed health records for the births of 10,946 babies born between 2009 and 2013. They compared health information about the births with the proximity of the mothers’ homes to fracking sites. The researchers also considered how active the wells were, to estimate how much each mother was exposed to fracking during her pregnancy.
Women living the closest to the most active wells had the worst outcomes. The study adjusted the data to account for a number of other factors that may affect birth outcomes, such as socioeconomic status and if the mother smoked during pregnancy.
While this research can’t pinpoint exactly what caused the premature births, there are a number of possible ways that fracking impacts the environment, and thereby, the health of the people who live nearby. The liquids used in the the fracking process often contain known toxins, which are pumped back up to the surface for storage and also possible use, but there is the risk of leaking and ground water contamination. The gas itself contains toxic substances that can be released into the air, particularly during uncontrolled flaring. The increase in heavy equipment use in an area can also increase air and noise pollution. Living near fracking may simply increase the stress of expecting mothers.
This is not the first study to show that living near fracking may have a negative impact on pregnancies. A study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that living near fracking wells during pregnancy was associated with a decreased birth weight. Low birth weight is associated with developmental problems later in life.
And it isn’t just unborn babies that are at risk. Another study by researchers from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Penn's Perelman School of Medicine found an increase in hospitalizations for zip codes with a greater concentration of wells.
“The first few studies have all shown health impacts,” said Brian S. Schwartz, the lead author of the Johns Hopkins study in a statement. “Policymakers need to consider findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward.”
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Epidemiology.