How Fracking Can Affect the Health of Infants

Living near a hydraulic fracking site can raise health risks to newborns, with mothers residing within a half mile more likely to give birth to underweight babies.

One of the largest studies conducted into how fossil fuel extraction affects human health found that Pennsylvania children born within about a half mile of a fracking site were 25% more likely to be underweight. The risk decreased the farther away a child is born, according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.

“I think I was surprised by the magnitude of the impact within the half-mile radius,” Michael Greenstone, a professor and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, and one of three authors of the study, told The Washington Post.

The five-year study looked at more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013. State records reviewed by researchers included health information such as birth weights as well as home addresses. Researchers compared the addresses to the locations of 7,700 fracking wells.

A low birth weight under 5.5 pounds has been linked to an increased risk of childhood mortality and poorer educational outcomes. Weighing less than 5.5 pounds at birth increases the probability of dropping out of high school by one third, reduces yearly earnings by about 15% and burdens people in their 30s and 40s with the health of someone who is 12 years older, according to a study funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Hydraulic fracking is when water and chemicals are pumped into the ground, creating pressure fractures in shale rock, which releases oil, natural gas and wastewater back to the surface. The wastewater is stored temporarily in storage containers, before typically being deposited back underground in sealed storage wells. Wastewater spills and air pollution are health concerns near fracking sites.

In a separate study that analyzed the effects of fracking on public health, researchers found that chemicals and heavy metals released during shale extraction pose a severe threat to developing fetuses. With over 15 million Americans living within one mile of an active oil or gas well where fracking takes place, pregnant women are exposed to toxic elements through skin absorption, contaminated drinking water, or inhalation.

Serious reproductive health and developmental effects from exposure to harmful fumes may arise in the form of infertility, miscarriage, or birth defects. That same study shows pregnant women living within a 10-mile radius of fracking wells are at risk of having their baby develop heart defects and premature death.

Fracking has had “a very large impact on communities where hydraulic fracturing takes place. Ultimately, whether or not the world or the United States will be able to access these resources is going to depend on what local communities decide,” Greenstone told PBS Newshour.

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