New research from Johns Hopkins University suggests pregnant women living near fracking wells in Pennsylvania are more likely to give birth prematurely or have high risk pregnancies.
“Now that we know this is happening we’d like to figure out why,” said Brian Schwartz, lead researcher and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They’re the two leading candidates in our minds at this point.”
Schwartz and his colleagues studied the records of more than 9,000 mothers who gave birth in north and central Pennsylvania between 2009 and 2013. They compared the data with information about natural gas fracking wells in the region.
The researchers found that living among the most active quartile of fracking activity was associated with a 40 percent increase in premature birth and a 30 percent increase in reported high-risk pregnancies, which can mean factors like high blood pressure or excessive weight gain.
Johns Hopkins said the research, published in the journal Epidemiology, was peer reviewed and funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Huge amounts of high-pressure water and chemicals are pumped underground in the fracking process to break shale rock and release oil and natural gas inside. Fracking has created an energy boom in the U.S, although it’s beginning to falter with the crash in oil and gas prices.
Schwartz said clearing of land for well pads, recovery of the drilling fluids, and heavy truck traffic on rural roads contributes to the environmental impact of fracking. He said a single study doesn’t provide definitive evidence of the impacts of fracking, but that it adds to the knowledge.
He said other research has shown a connection between fracking wells and low birth weight.
“There are now four studies that have looked at various aspects of reproductive health in relation to this industry and all have found something,” Schwartz said in an interview.
The Pennsylvania director for Energy In Depth, a research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said her organization was still going through the Johns Hopkins research but said it “doesn’t take any environmental samples and relies heavily on assumptions.”
Energy In Depth’s Nicole Jacobs also noted that Schwartz is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank that works on alternatives to fossil fuels.
Schwartz said the nation needs energy, but the growth of fracking wells has outpaced knowledge of the environmental and health impacts.
He said the research is “still in its infancy” but should give policymakers reason for concern. “Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry,” he said.