This October the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a study linking fracking to adverse pregnancy outcomes, specifically premature births. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is the “process of pumping chemical-laced water into shale to extract the oil or gas embedded within.” Fracking is a stimulation process used to access natural gas located 5,000-8,000 feet below the surface that was previously unavailable.
The study found that living within the most active area of fracking (most active quartile of drilling and production) activity was associated with a 40% increase in a woman giving birth prematurely (preterm is considered to be before 37 weeks gestation) and a 30% increase that an obstetrician had labeled their pregnancy high-risk. Of the pregnancies in the study 11% of those resulted in a premature birth with 79% of those preterm births taking place between 32 and 36 weeks.
Premature birth is a serious public health problem because it increases the risk of death and serious disability for children who are born prematurely. Children born prematurely may suffer from numerous health complications including breathing problems, feeding difficulties, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, vision problems, and hearing impairment. Preterm birth is the greatest contributor to infant death and the leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children. In 2010, preterm-related deaths accounted for 35% of all infant deaths and in 2005 preterm births cost the U.S. healthcare system 26 billion dollars.
The practice of fracking is a controversial topic for many reasons including other public health dangers fracking might be related to and the potential long-term environmental impact it might have. Preliminary studies conducted on births in Pennsylvania report an increased risk for low birth weight, which can be a sign of developmental problems. A Yale University study found that people living near natural gas wells are more than twice as likely to have respiratory illnesses and skin problems. There is also preliminary research suggesting that fracking is related to water pollution.
Additionally, fracking is a public health concern because its use and prevalence has rapidly expanded in the United States when much is still unknown about the dangers and long-term effects. The process of fracking dates back as early as the 1940s, while large scale use did not occur until 2003. It was around 2003 that “energy companies began actively expanding natural gas exploration with an emphasis in shale formations in Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wyoming, Utah and Maryland.” Specifically, the expansion was supported by an EPA study released in 2004 announcing that fracturing posed no risk to the underground water supply. Shortly afterwards in 2005, fracking was exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by the Bush administration. Fracking began in just a couple of states, but the practice has rapidly expanded and is now used in over fifteen states.
Although this study is not definitive, it shows that there are some public health risks associated with fracking and that more studies are needed. It is also a sign that the fracking industry should proceed with caution. Because fracking has relatively recently gained widespread usage, much is still unknown about the environmental consequences and the public health dangers fracking might cause.