Fracking negatively impacts infant health, finds new study

A new study has found that babies born to mothers who lived near a fracking well during pregnancy are more likely to be born with low birth weights, leaving them at greater risk of infant mortality, ADHD, asthma and other negative health effects.

Babies born to mothers who lived within 800 metres of a fracking well during pregnancy have a 25% higher risk of lower birth rate. (Image credit: Adam Cohn via Flickr)

Fracking is transforming small towns into energy powerhouses across the United States. But while some see the new energy boom as benefiting the local economy and decreasing American reliance on foreign oil, others fear the potential health and environmental consequences that come along with fracking.

Link between pollution and infant health

The naysayers now have a new study to back them up. It found that health risks increase for infants born to mothers living with 3.2 kilometres of a fracking well.

Those risks increase the closer the mother lived to the fracking well: babies born within 800 metres of a fracking site were 25 per cent more likely to be born at low birth weights, leaving them at greater risk of infant mortality, ADHD, asthma, lower test scores, lower schooling attainment and lower lifetime earnings.

“Given the growing evidence that pollution affects babies in utero, it should not be surprising that fracking, which is a heavy industrial activity, has negative effects on infants,” co-author Janet Currie from Princeton University said in a statement announcing the new research.

“As local and state policymakers decide whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in their communities, it is crucial that they carefully examine the costs and benefits, including the potential impacts from pollution,” said study co-author Michael Greenstone from the University of Chicago.

“This study provides the strongest large-scale evidence of a link between the pollution that stems from hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies.”

The closer, the greater the risk

Using records from more than 1.1 million births across Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013, the researchers compared infants born to mothers living near a drilling site to those living farther away from a site, before and after fracking began at that site.

The most significant impacts were seen among babies born less than 800 metres from a site, as those babies were 25 per cent more likely to be low birth weight, that is born under 2.5 kilograms.

Infants born to mothers living between 800 metres and 3.2 kilometres saw their risk of low birth weight decrease by about a half to a third. Infants born to mothers living beyond 3.2 kilometres experienced little to no impact to their health.

“These results suggest that hydraulic fracturing does have an impact on our health, though the good news is that this is only at a highly localized level,” said Currie. “Out of the nearly 4 million babies born in the United States each year, about 29,000 of them are born within about a half mile of a fracking site.”

Source of pollution unknown

“While we know pollution from hydraulic fracturing impacts our health, we do not yet know where that pollution is coming from – from the air or water, from chemicals onsite, or an increase in traffic,” said co-author Katherine Meckel from UCLA.

“Until we can determine the source of this pollution and contain it, local lawmakers will be forced to continue to make the difficult decision of whether to allow fracking in order to boost their local economies – despite the health implications – or ban it altogether, missing out on the jobs and revenue it would bring.”


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