A profoundly troubling new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives finds that living near hydraulic fracturing operations presents a danger to unborn children.
Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado looked at 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado and examined birth outcomes in relation to proximity to natural gas development. The study concluded:
In this large cohort, we observed an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of [congenital heart defects] and possibly [neural tube defects – birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord]. Greater specificity in exposure estimates are needed to further explore these associations.
Preliminary findings from a similar study Pennsylvania released last month found other disturbing potential risks to infant health from proximity to hydraulic fracturing operations. Neither study identified the exposure pathways that may be responsible for the the associations identified.
Environmental Health Perspectives' mission is “to serve as a forum for the discussion of the interrelationships between the environment and human health by publishing high-quality peer-reviewed research and news of the field.” It’s increasingly clear that the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on public health demand urgent discussion, more research – and strong action.
Feb. 11 update: The chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Health has cautioned against a "rush to judgment" on this study:
The state official criticized the study’s design and highlighted its limitations. Inactive wells weren’t distinguished from active wells...while findings on neural tube defects didn’t account for factors like prenatal health care, drinking or smoking. On top of that, the study only made use of the mothers’ addresses at the time of their babies’ birth, and didn’t account for women who might have moved after the first trimester, when most birth defects occur...
The story notes, however, that the study was peer-reviewed, and that it:
…was punctuated with a long list of acknowledged limitations in the available data — including many of the same caveats highlighted by the health department.
In other words, it was not – nor was it presented as – definitive.
Was the state’s reaction to the study “defensive”? Judge for yourself. The scientific process is supposed to be about presentation of data and conclusions, rigorous peer review and criticism - and then more science. The bottom line is that more research on fracking's impacts on public health is urgently needed. The scientific process must be allowed to work - and then we must go wherever the science leads.