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New study links active gas wells to pregnancy complications, preterm birth

Women who live near active natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are more likely to experience pregnancy complications, according to a study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study evaluated data from Geisinger Health System, a healthcare network present in 40 counties. Researchers studied records of 9,384 mothers who gave birth to 10,946 children from 2009 to 2013.

Comparing the data to natural gas development factors such as the distance between mothers’ homes and gas wells, stages of drilling and the depths of the wells, researchers found that women living near active production experienced a 40 percent higher risk of preterm birth and a 30 percent greater chance of a high-risk pregnancy.

Of the pregnancies the researchers studied, 11 percent were born preterm.

“Now that we know this is happening we’d like to figure out why,” Schwartz says. “Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They’re the two leading candidates in our minds at this point.”

Schwartz suspects that pollution from wastewater injection and stress from increased truck traffic from the area’s steep oil and gas growth have contributed to the uptick in preterm births and other complications.

The state’s number of natural gas wells skyrocketed from 100 in 2006 to more than 8,000 today.

“The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are,” study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD and professor at the school said. “More than 8,000 unconventional gas well shave been drilled in Pennsylvania alone, and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.”

‘These findings cannot be ignored’

While additional studies on the matter have been sparse, they have for the most part yielded similarly adverse conclusions. The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health released a study earlier this year that found lower birth weights for children of women who lived close to natural gas wells during their pregnancies.

“These findings cannot be ignored,” said Bruce Pitt, a co-author of the study and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “There is a clear need for studies in larger populations with better estimates of exposure and more in-depth medical records.”

Parents of students at Bethke Elementary in Timnath, Colorado demanded answers for what health risks were involved with the oil and gas drilling licensed within 2,000 feet of the school.

Timnath town council partnered with Colorado State University to study how nearby activity on oil and gas wells might affect children. Bethke parents soon became frustrated with the ambiguous answers from researchers.

“What happens if five to 20 years from now we have increased cancer, birth defects and other adverse health effects?” Bethke parent Michael Harrington asked in April. “An apology?”

Moving Forward

Natural gas is cheap right now, and production has slowed. While fewer than 500 wells are set for drilling this year, Schwartz knows an upswing could be right around the corner in an industry as tempestuous and cyclical as oil and gas.

The study might be just scraping the surface of oil and gas development’s health risks, but Schwartz urges lawmakers not to ignore the study.

“The first few studies have all shown health impacts,” he said. “Policymakers need to consider the findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward.”

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