Fracking Impacts Infant Health, New Study Reveals

Photo Source: Princeton University 

By Donald Gilpin

A recent study, co-authored by Princeton University Economics Professor Janet Currie, reveals significant increases of health risks for infants born to mothers living within two miles of a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) site.

“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,” said Currie, who directs the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“These results suggest that hydraulic fracturing does have an impact on our health,” Currie continued, “though the good news is that this is only at a highly localized level.”

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

Babies born within 0.6 miles of a site were 25 percent more likely to have a low birth weight, under five and a half pounds. For babies born to mothers living between half a mile and two miles, the risk of low birth weight decreased by about half to a third, and infants born to mothers living beyond two miles experienced little to no impact to their health. About 29,000 out of the four million babies born in the United States each year are born within about a half mile of a fracking site.

Low birth weights have been correlated with greater risk of infant mortality, ADHD, asthma, lower test scores, poorer performance in school, and lower lifetime earnings.

The development of fracking, according to Currie and her co-authors Michael Greenstone and Katherine Meckel, is considered to be the biggest change to the global energy production system in the last half century, boosting local economies, decreasing air pollution by displacing coal in electricity generation, and increasing prospects for U.S. energy self-sufficiency

But several communities have banned fracking because of unresolved concerns about health impacts.

“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 Greenstone, economics professor and director of the Energy Policy Institute at 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.”

Emphasizing the difficulties in assessing costs and benefits for communities deciding whether to allow fracking, Currie weighed the pros and cons. “Fracking has really had huge economic benefits for many parts of the U.S. in terms of jobs and income, and nationally for energy self-sufficiency and possible reduction of greenhouse gases since natural gas is cleaner than some other sources of energy like coal. It therefore seems to me unlikely that fracking will be banned from the U.S.

“And higher incomes are associated with better health in general. So it is fair to say that there are benefits of fracking. At the same time, as there are with any heavy industrial activity, there is bound to be pollution, and pollution generally has health consequences.”

She went on to suggest possible means of regulating fracking to reduce the negative effects. “Because of concerns about fracking and the water supply,” she said, “states like Pennsylvania have already enacted stricter regulations about the disposal of fracking fluid and responsibilities to make sure that it does not leak from the well head. Our results provide a first step for thinking about regulation of the air pollution from fracking. In that regard, the fact that we don’t find effects further than about two miles from a well head is very significant as it suggests that one way to mitigate the health effects of fracking would be to simply have more of a buffer around wells.”

Meckel, assistant professor at University of California, Los Angeles and formerly a graduate student of Currie’s at Columbia University, added, “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.”

The study, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Infant Health: New Evidence from Pennsylvania,” first appeared online December 13 in Science Advances, a multidisciplinary scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.