In the past, studies have shown that fracking causes air pollution that can hurt babies, and premature birth has been linked to living near fracking sites. Now, a new study found that babies born near fracking sites are more likely to have low birth weights. In fact, children born near fracking sites are 25 percent more likely to be underweight at birth, The Verge reported.
The study analyzed the records of more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013, and results were just published in Science Advances, an open access scientific journal. The study looked at infants born to mothers living at different distances away from active fracking sites, and babies born before and after fracking started at each site. The abstract of the study found "evidence for negative health effects of in utero exposure to fracking sites within 3 [kilometers] of a mother’s residence." But the most alarming effects were seen in babies born to moms living within 1 kilometer of fracking sites.
Science Advances summed up the abstract with a very concerning statistic about births in the United States, which read:
There is little evidence for health effects at distances beyond 3 km, suggesting that health impacts of fracking are highly local. Informal estimates suggest that about 29,000 of the nearly 4 million annual U.S. births occur within 1 km of an active fracking site and that these births therefore may be at higher risk of poor birth outcomes.
As a refresher: fracking is a process that involves "drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside," according to the BBC. The term fracking, specifically, is in reference to how the rock is fractured by the high pressure mixture, and it's short for hydraulic fracturing.
But fracking is controversial for health and environmental reasons. Fracking uses a ton of water, which has to be transported to the fracking site "at significant environmental cost," the BBC noted. Opponents of fracking say the industry is poorly regulated and that fracking led to increased air and water pollution around the U.S. in the past, according to Vox.
Indeed, previous studies have shown that fracking can cause air pollution that could hurt babies. Studies have also shown that living near fracking sites is linked to premature births, with one study in Epidemiology finding that "unconventional natural gas development" may impact prenatal health and birth outcomes.
Another study found that children born to mothers living near fracking sites might have a higher risk of heart defects, and birth defects are "a leading cause of neonatal mortality," according to Environmental Health Perspectives.
But this study instead involved birth weight, which can be an indicator that a baby may have more of a risk for complications like infection, breathing problems, or even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), according to Stanford Children's Health.
This study could prove to be very significant for experts looking at the effects of living near a fracking site. Joan Casey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, told The Verge:
There’s growing evidence that living close to unconventional natural gas development might have implications for population health. This is one of the largest studies to date showing that.
The authors of the study looked at years of data to come to their conclusion. They compared the distance between the fracking sites and where mothers lived, as well as analyzed the siblings of the babies in the study to see if they had similar health concerns. They compared siblings of the affected babies born to the same mother before and after fracking wells were active, in addition to the mother's distance from the well, in an attempt to control for an important factor that could have impacted the study's results: poverty.
Moms who live near polluted sites are usually poorer than mothers living somewhere like Philadelphia, Casey told The Verge. Since poverty affects pregnancy and childbirth, the authors tried to get as much data as possible to be sure that wasn't skewering the outcome of the study.
Of course, poverty might still have had an impact on the results, and the study doesn’t say what exactly may be affecting the babies during pregnancy. Co-author Janet Currie, the director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University, told The Verge that the likely culprit is air pollution tied to the fracking activity, but that's not 100-percent certain.
But with so many babies being born near fracking sites, the impact of the presence of those sites and the pollution they can produce on babies' health definitely needs to be explored further to be sure as many moms and babies have the best chance of being healthy as possible.
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