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Study: Babies of mothers who live near fracking sites face increased health risks

| Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
A worker tends to a drill pad near  Majorsville in West Virginia.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A worker tends to a drill pad near Majorsville in West Virginia.

Babies born to mothers who live within a kilometer of an active hydraulic fracturing site face increased health risks, according to a Princeton University study published in Science Advances.

The study found that babies born to mothers living within a kilometer of a drilling site — or nearly two-thirds of a mile — had about an 8 percent chance of having a low birth weight, while babies born to mothers living farther away had about a 6.5 percent chance.

Low birth weights, defined as less than about 5.5 pounds, are associated with health risks including infant mortality, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and asthma.

“It's a pretty significant risk for the people who are really close to the well,” said Janet Currie, who is a co-author of the paper and a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton.

“On the positive side, not that many people live that close” to wells, Currie said.

The study used Pennsylvania Health Department data for 1.1 million births from 2004 to 2013 that pinpointed the addresses of newborns' mothers. It compared birth weights before and after drilling began in areas across the state. Mothers living within a kilometer of wells delivered 6,700 babies in Pennsylvania during that time, the study said.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves blasting water and chemicals into shale rock to fracture it, releasing deposits of gas and petroleum.

Currie's study suggests fracking negatively impacts air quality very close to wells, but she said the impacts do not appear to be far-reaching. Evidence of negative health effects dropped sharply after one kilometer.

The study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, notes that air pollutants have been linked to low birth weights in areas near industrial plants and in highway toll plazas with heavy traffic congestion.

Researchers don't know what exactly is in the air near the fracking sites, Currie said. She said a few studies have found volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a carcinogenic solvent, and hydrocarbons that have been linked to preterm delivery.

“I think the next step is to be more systematic about measuring what things are in the air near wells,” she said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, issued a statement saying the study didn't account for risk factors related to smoking, alcohol and drug use among mothers.

“We absolutely support rigorous, fact-based research and sound science. Unfortunately, this study's methodology fails to account for a wide range of basic yet highly critical public health factors,” spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright said in the statement.

The coalition pointed to a recently published study funded by an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America that found no impact on death rates, including infant mortality, from fracking in six top shale-producing counties in the state, including Washington and Greene counties.

In response to the coalition's concerns, Currie pointed out that babies were more likely to be born with a lower birth weight after fracking started. If factors such as drugs and alcohol were the cause, rather than fracking, than drug and alcohol use would have had to increase over the study period to account for the change. Researchers assumed that those activities did not increase with fracking, she said.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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