Back in 2006, there were less than 100 fracked gas wells in the state of Pennsylvania. Today, there are more than 8,000. How has this impacted kids, parents, and families living among the rapid expansion of natural gas fracking in the Keystone State?
A new study focusing on birth outcomes in Western Pennsylvania suggests that living near fracking operations harms babies. The statistical analysis of almost 11,000 births over four years shows that pregnant women living near active fracking were at higher risk of delivering preterm babies (babies born before 37 weeks).
Researchers looked at other adverse birth outcomes, such as Apgar score and low birth weight, but found no statistically significant association between them and proximity to active fracking.
This kind of epidemiological study cannot prove that fracking causes preterm birth – only that living near active gas wells is associated with preterm birth. Proving causation in complex real-world situations is extremely challenging. And health studies about fracking are few and far between. There is far too little information for a process that has expanded so quickly.
The Pennsylvania study joins a very small handful of studies that have found associations between fracking and adverse reproductive health outcomes. One study in rural Colorado found an increased risk of congenital heart and neural tube defects in babies whose mothers lived within 10 miles of a natural gas well.
Despite the thin epidemiological evidence, researchers agree that many of the pollutants choking communities near fracked gas wells – such as benzene and toluene – are known reproductive toxicants.
The authors of the latest study don’t know what may have caused the association between fracking and preterm birth – that wasn’t what they examined in the study. Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, said, “Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They’re the two leading candidates in our minds at this point.”
Pennsylvania is hardly alone in dealing with the impacts of fracking. In communities across the country – in urban and rural areas, in the heartland and on the coasts, in 22 states and counting – fracking is being used to extract natural gas from shale reserves. There are more than 80,000 fracked gas wells in operation in the US, so the new findings on premature birth could have society-wide implications.
Whatever is the mechanism behind the findings on preterm birth, we know already that fracking is a major climate polluter. Methane, the main component of natural gas, traps heat far more efficiently than carbon dioxide. That means that even relatively small amounts of methane pollution can have outsize climate change impacts.
Methane is leaking from natural gas wells, pipelines, and compressor stations across the country. Sometimes it’s even vented on purpose. Either way, it’s wasteful, preventable, and harmful.
By limiting methane emissions from natural gas operations, we can also limit some of the known reproductive toxicants that co-pollute our air alongside methane, and that may be harming babies born near gas wells.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, but it is mined from shale formations where other petrochemicals are also formed. These chemicals come out together. There’s no refinery underground. By limiting one, we can help reduce the others.
Rules that limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are doubly important. They will help protect our climate and our communities at the same time.