Can fracking operations cause health problems or birth defects in babies who are born near wells? Preliminary scientific research says that it might and that more research needs to be done as oil and gas production booms across the country.
According to a report in Bloomberg News, scientists are calling for more research into how the process of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, impacts the environment, and how those impacts interact with genetics in unborn children living near wells. Fracking is a controversial yet popular technique used to stimulate natural gas wells underground by inject high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals miles-deep into subsurface rock, effectively cracking or “fracturing” it, making the gas easier to extract.
Fracking has been so controversial in part because of how quickly the practice is spreading in the United States without much scientific information regarding the potential impact on public health. A good number of studies look at the environmental impacts of fracking on air and water supplies, but there are few that look directly at the long-term health and quality of life of nearby residents.
Some of the best preliminary research regarding fracking and public health looks at how the process may impact pregnancies in those living near wells, and so far the results haven’t been heartening. For example, scientists at the Colorado School of Public Health in January published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives finding an increased rate of congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers living near gas wells in Colorado.
Also in Colorado, scientists found elevated levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals in groundwater samples at a town at the center of the fracking boom. Those chemicals are linked to infertility, and led researchers to believe that populations surrounding the area “may face greater health risks” than those who don’t.
While those studies were peer-reviewed, the Bloomberg report notes that other non-peer-reviewed research has shown similar results. “Two studies, which have not been peer reviewed, showed infants born near fracking sites in Pennsylvania were more likely to have low birth weight, a sign of developmental problems,” the article reads. “In Utah, local authorities are investigating a spate of stillbirths after tests found dangerous levels of air pollution from the oil and gas industry.”
Still, scientists agree that more research needs to be done before a conclusive statement can be made about whether proximity to natural gas drilling causes birth defects or other health problems in babies and mothers. The Colorado study finding an increased rate in congenital heart defects wasn’t conclusive, Bloomberg noted, because it “didn’t account for different types of wells, water quality, mothers’ behavior or genetics.”
Fracking, along with conventional natural gas development, could impact public health in many ways. In addition to the potential for chemicals in wastewater to leech into the soil, there is large concern over high rates of methane and general natural gas leakage into the atmosphere. In addition to methane being a highly potent greenhouse gas, natural gas contains other chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and hydrogen sulfide.
The reason research surrounding fracking and how it might impact babies and pregnancies is scant isn’t solely because scientists haven’t been looking into it. It’s also because industry leaders continue to assert that it the process is safe and doesn’t impact human health, despite the lack of scientific research to support that claim.
States where fracking is widespread don’t keep adequate data on impacts either — Indeed, a recent University of Texas-Austin analysis of Texas government data found that there wasn’t enough on hand to track the public health effects of toxic air emissions.
In addition, drilling companies in many states aren’t required to disclose the chemicals they use when fracking, meaning if those chemicals leeched into the environment, it would be difficult for scientists to prove that they came from drilling operations.