While the findings are still preliminary, any documented hazards threaten to cast a shadow over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- the process of blasting chemicals, sand and water deep underground to extract fuel from rock that’s helped push the U.S. closer to energy self-sufficiency than at any time since 1985.
“It’s not really well understood how the environment interacts with genetics to produce these birth defects,” said Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health, who conducted research published in January in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “We really need to do more study to see what the association is, if any, with natural gas development.”
McKenzie and her colleagues discovered more congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers living near gas wells in Colorado. Two studies, which have not been peer reviewed, showed infants born near fracking sites in Pennsylvania were more likely to have low birth weight, a sign of developmental problems. In Utah, local authorities are investigating a spate of stillbirths after tests found dangerous levels of air pollution from the oil and gas industry.
“The question isn’t are there risks, the question is are there rules and regulations in place that effectively mitigate these risks and deal with problems should they occur, and the answer is yes,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Washington-based Energy In Depth, an industry-funded group that promotes fracking. “The body of scientific knowledge has to advance gradually and you have to look at all of these things and the full spectrum. You can’t just look at this one individual or this group of studies.”
In published research, McKenzie and her colleagues found that babies born to mothers living with more than 125 wells within a mile (1.6 km) of their homes showed a 30 percent increase in congenital heart defects compared with those with no wells within 10 miles. The abnormalities, based on 59 available cases in Colorado, ranged in severity and could have resulted from genes or environmental causes other than fossil-fuel extraction, according to McKenzie.
The study wasn’t conclusive because it didn’t account for different types of wells, water quality, mothers’ behavior or genetics, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in an e-mailed statement. The state’s oil and gas rules are the most stringent in the nation, said Larry Wolk, the department’s director and chief medical officer.
“I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at the time of their pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” Wolk said in the statement. “Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
McKenzie said she’s starting another four-year study, funded by the American Heart Association, that focuses on a subset of the cases to determine their precise exposures to pollutants and other risk factors, such as the parents’ occupations.
“I think it’s up to each individual to look at the data and make their own decision on whether or not they’re concerned,” McKenzie said. “The data do tell us with more wells in the area there are more congenital heart defects, although there are a lot of limitations in the data and when we start looking at it more closely, that may or may not stand up.”
A separate investigation into 22 anomalies in unborn children in Garfield County, Colorado, in 2013 found no underlying cause after examining factors including proximity to active oil and gas wells, the state’s public health department said in May. The county has more than 2,000 oil and gas wells, according to FracFocus.org, an industry-sponsored website.
Kathleen Sgamma, a spokeswoman for the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group whose members include Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC) and Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (PXD), said exploration and production companies are funding more research on health effects and are working to reduce emissions by installing equipment and adjusting practices.
“It’s way too early to jump to conclusions,” Sgamma said. “It’s a real big leap that I don’t think you can draw at this time at all, if ever, to say that because air pollution can cause birth defects, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Two Pennsylvania studies, however, found increases in low birth weight near gas drilling. They haven’t been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Infants born within 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) of fracking sites were about 60 percent more likely to have low birth weight, according to a review of Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January.
That research echoed a December working paper by Elaine Hill, then an economics graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which found that babies born to mothers living within 2.5 kilometers of a gas well during pregnancy had lower average birth weights after drilling than before. The results were consistent between piped public water and well water, suggesting the exposure came from air pollution or stress, Hill said in the paper.
Low birth weight leads to higher health-care expenses and greater likelihood of needing special education, amounting to a total cost to society of about $96,500 per child, according to the paper. Previous research has shown a link between air pollution and low birth weight in general, Hill said in the study.
In Utah’s Uintah Basin, where at least 17 drillers operate, the air has dangerously high levels of ozone and other toxins from oil and gas emissions, according to measurements by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the first two months of 2012 and 2013. The basin has more than 11,000 oil and gas wells, with proposals for almost 25,000 more, the researchers said in the study, published in March in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The area sits atop about 1.32 trillion barrels of oil, one of the largest oil shale deposits in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The rural area’s air pollution was equivalent to the annual exhaust of 100 million cars and worse than Los Angeles’s smog in the summer, according to the article. High ozone levels are known to cause breathing problems and early death, the researchers said.
Concerns surfaced this summer that the pollution might contribute to infant deaths in Vernal, a city of about 10,000 in the Uintah Basin.
Last year, a midwife named Donna Young delivered a stillborn baby for the first time in 19 years. At the funeral, she said she noticed the cemetery had a number of recent graves with single dates.
Official figures on infant mortality in 2013 aren’t yet available, according to the state’s Office of Vital Records and Statistics. So Young examined obituaries, counting 12 deaths in 2013, up from four a year earlier, three in 2011 and two in 2010. The rate appears to be six times the national average, according to Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
“Whenever you see a pollution nightmare, if you look hard enough you’re going to have a public health nightmare,” said Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City anesthesiologist and president of the physicians’ group. “There’s enough evidence to suggest that this is a serious problem.”