Jill Johnston, one of the study’s lead authors and environmental health scientist at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California:
“Our study indicates that there are serious public health concerns associated with living near flaring.”
Babies born near natural gas flaring are 50 percent more likely to be premature: Study, Researchers link air pollution from burning off excess natural gas to preterm births for babies, with the most pronounced impacts among Hispanic families by Kristina Marusic, July 15, 2020, Environmental Health News
Living near fracking operations that frequently engage in flaring—the process of burning off excess natural gas—makes expectant parents 50 percent more likely to have a preterm birth, according to a new study.
A birth is considered preterm when a baby arrives before 37 weeks (about eight and a half months) of pregnancy. Preterm births can result in underdeveloped lungs, difficulty regulating body temperature, poor feeding, and slow weight gain in babies.
… Flares can burn for weeks at a time, releasing combustion-generated pollutants like benzene, fine particulate matter pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and black carbon. And to burn off the masses of secret frac chemicals injected. Companies don’t want them in their products, so they make families, communities, livestock, pets and wildlife breath them instead.
The study, published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at satellite data showing the location and duration of flares, and at hospital records from 23,487 births for parents living in the rural region of Eagle Ford, Texas between 2012 and 2015. In a previous study, the same researchers estimated that the Eagle Ford shale region, which is home to more than 7,000 fracking wells, had more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016.
“We found that among mothers living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of a high amount of flaring activity during pregnancy, we saw 50 percent higher odds of preterm birth compared to mothers that had no exposure to flaring,” Jill Johnston, one of the study’s lead authors and an environmental health scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, told EHN.
A high amount of flaring was defined in the study as 10 or more nightly flare events OMG! That’s nothing compared to what happens in frac fields in Canada. During Encana’s shallow frac boom in my community, we were exposed to multiple flares day and night within that distance, for years. Encana/Ovintiv frac’d us again and again and again, and refrac’d us again and again and again. within three miles of the pregnant parent’s home. The researchers adjusted for the pregnancy risk of just living near oil and gas operations in general, and for other known risk factors for preterm birth including age, smoking, insurance status and access to prenatal care, to ensure that the increased risk they were seeing was just associated with flaring.
While looking at the density of wells, the researchers found that expectant parents who lived within three miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of a preterm birth than parents who did not live near wells, regardless of flaring. They also observed that babies born to parents who live near a high number of wells were smaller, weighing an average of about seven ounces less than babies born to parents who didn’t live near fracking wells.
Flaring in the Bakken shale in North Dakota. (Credit: Trudy E. Bell)
Johnston and colleagues found that parents in the study who identified as Latina or Hispanic were exposed to more flaring, and were more likely than White parents to see an increased risk of preterm birth.
“I think that racial disparity is an important finding, and we need more research on the reasons behind it,” Johnston said, noting that prior research has shown more vulnerability of women of color to effects of air pollution when looking at adverse birth outcomes.
“It’s possible that a lifetime of discrimination and social stressors are driving factors here. It could also be that Hispanic families are spending more time outside and being more exposed to pollution from flares,” Johnston added. I’ve been advised by a health expect to never have my windows open at night because frac pollution is much worse at night. Unfortunately, no health authority or regulator warns Canadians of that, so I learned years too late. How is one to cool the house down on hot summer nights? I do not waste energy on air conditioning, I use my windows and shutters to keep my house cool but keeping windows closed at night makes that impossible.
Hispanic communities in the region are exposed to more frequent flaring than White communities, Johnston said, which could also mean that even among the “high-flare group” in their study, Hispanic parents were being exposed to a higher number of flares every night than White counterparts.
“Historically, much of the waste disposal in the U.S. is concentrated in communities of color,” Johnston added. “One theory is that we’re seeing the same pattern with flaring, which is essentially another type of waste disposal. Infrastructure investments can be made to capture excess natural gas rather than burning it off, and where those funds are invested to minimize flaring often seems to depend on the characteristics of the communities nearby.”
A lack of health-protective regulations
It’s estimated that globally, more than 139 billion cubic meters, or about 4.6 percent of all natural gas production, is flared every year.
Following the fracking boom that started in the U.S. around 2006, the U.S. became responsible for the highest number of flares of any single country, burning an estimated 13.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2018.
In a previous study, Johnston and her research team estimated that about 80 percent of U.S. flaring is occurring in the Texas and in North Dakota shale plays, where much of the country’s oil-extractive fracking occurs. In places like Pennsylvania, where fracking companies primarily extract natural gas, some flaring occurs, but it’s less common since most of the gas is captured and sold.
Despite the high level of flaring that’s occurring in the U.S. and in Texas, there are few federal or state regulations on the practice, and most of the data on flares is sporadically self-reported by the industry.
“It would have been really difficult to do this assessment if we didn’t have satellite data and had to try to sort through the spotty state-level data that was available,” Johnston said. She pointed to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which prompted deregulation of the oil and gas industry nationwide, as a likely cause for the lack of regulations and data on flaring. In the last four years, the Trump Administration has been working to further reduce the number of regulations on the industry. Kenney, Harper, Moe, Wall, Horgan, etc, did/are doing much deregulation in Canada too.
If expectant parents notice flaring activity nearby, Johnston recommended reducing exposure to airborne pollutants as much as possible by staying indoors, keeping the windows closed to reduce the amount of outdoor air that gets into the house, and using an air filter to purify indoor air. But, of course no companies, regulators, rich politicians will cover the costs of that. Quality air purifiers are expensive, with expensive filters. How do poor families pay to clean their frac’d air in their homes?
“Our study indicates that there are serious public health concerns associated with living near flaring,” Johnston said. “I believe that regulatory efforts to reduce and eliminate the amount of flaring that’s occurring would be beneficial to communities nearby.”
Banner photo credit: skalekar1992/Pixabay
Refer also to:
2015: Another study showing serious frac harm: Women near frac sites 40 per cent more likely to give birth prematurely, and 30 per cent increase in chance that an obstetrician had labeled their pregnancy high-risk
2019: Encana, one of the world’s 47 most polluting companies, named “morally responsible” for death & destruction; First time a human rights body stated fossil fuel companies can be found legally and morally liable for harms linked to climate change.
2019: New study says shale gas not worth it, not even for the jobs: “Air pollution from shale gas development activities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia from 2004 to 2016 resulted in 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths in the region” costing $23 billion. “Climate impacts produced mid-range costs of an additional $34 billion” while cumulative impacts on water and air quality, ecosystem, climate, labor markets and public health “are still largely unexplored and unaccounted for.”
2020: Another new study: Living near oil & gas wells tied to low birth weights in infants, adds to growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil & gas to adverse health outcomes, including heart defects, cancer …