Babies’ health suffers from being born near fracking sites, finds major study

Babies born less than two miles from a fracking site are at risk of health problems that could hamper them later in life, new research has found.

Mothers who lived within 1km (0.6 miles) of a fracking site saw a 25 per cent increase in the likelihood that their child would be born at low birth weight, be born prematurely or have other congenital issues, the study found. 

Being born at low birth weight (less than 5.5lbs) has been linked to a number of future health risks, including higher risks of asthma and ADHD, as well as poorer education attainment and future professional success.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a fossil fuel extraction process which releases gas trapped in shale rock underground by pumping water, sand and chemicals into it at huge pressures.

This “fractures” the rock and allows the gas to escape through fissures and out through the well where it can be used to generate electricity.

Researchers from Princeton University studied birth data for 1.1million children born in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013 and mapped their mother’s address against fracking sites.

Living within a kilometre of a well site had biggest impact on lowering average birth weights, cases of low birth weight, and a decreases in babies’ overall health score, they found. 

The overall health score gives a measure of babies’ prematurity, any birth defects, or health issues at birth.

However, there were impacts visible up to 3km (1.8 miles) away, although these were about one third to half the size.

 “Overall, the results suggest that the introduction of fracking reduces health among infants born to mothers living within 3 km of a well site during pregnancy,” the paper, published in the Science Advances journal states. 

“We find the largest effects for mothers living within 1 km of a site — a 25 per cent increase in the probability of a low – birth weight birth (<2500 g) and significant declines in average birth weight, as well as in an index of infant health.”

“Low birth weight is a risk factor for numerous negative outcomes, including infant mortality, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, lower test scores, lower schooling attainment, lower earnings, and higher rates of social welfare program participation,” it adds.

These negative impacts could be as a result of the heavy industrial traffic and air pollution which comes from living near a fracking site.

There are also cases where polluted water used in fracking has contaminated water supplies.

Fracking is a major source of energy in America and there are nearly 130,000 registered well sites across the United States.

Its expansion in the US has led to a cheap energy boom and prompted the Conservatives to push for a UK “fracking revolution” in their 2017 manifesto.

This is despite data showing that it can lead to water supplies being contaminated with radioactive material,and geologists warning the UK’s shale gas reserves have been “overhyped”.

Fears over its environmental and health impacts have led to protests at sites prospecting for shale gas across England.

“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 one of the report’s authors, Henry Putnam, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton.  

Fracking safe for environment

There is a clear impact on health, though “thankfully” it appears to be localised.

The authors say this latest study should be looked at by policy makers deciding whether to permit more fracking sites, it should also be cause for more research to identify the exact cause of the health impact.

“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, assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute told The Independent that while this showed a real health impact, environmental and genetic factors, rather than fracking, were the cause.

“This report highlights a legitimate health issue across America that has nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations. 

“It fails to consider important factors like family history, parental health, lifestyle habits, and other environmental factors and ignores the body of scientific research that has gone into child mortality and birthweight.”

“The natural gas and oil industry invests millions in scientific research every year to ensure the health and safety of the communities where we operate, live and work and will continue working hard to bring affordable and reliable energy to Pennsylvanians.”