Living near active oil and gas wells may put pregnant people at higher risk of having low birth weight babies, especially in rural areas, finds a new study of birth outcomes in California.
The study, funded by the California Air Resources Board, is one of the largest of its kind and the first in the state. It analyzed the records of nearly 3 million births to people living within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. Unlike previous studies, it examined births in both rural and urban areas, and people living near both active and inactive oil and gas sites.
The study found that, in rural areas, pregnant people who lived within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to have low birth weight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only. Among term births, babies were 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller, on average, than those of their counterparts.
People living near active wells in urban areas also had slightly increased odds of having small for gestational age babies than their counterparts. The study did not find a significant relationship between proximity to oil and gas wells and premature births.
“Being born of low birth weight or small for gestational age can affect the development of newborns and increase their risk of health problems in early childhood and even into adulthood,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper. “When you see a shift of over 30 grams of birth weight among term infants, from an individual clinical perspective, it may not seem like a lot. But when you see that kind of large population shift in birth weight — that can have significant population level implications for infant and children’s health.”
The findings, published June 3 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth, heart defects and low birth weight.
Oil production in California has generally declined over the past three decades, and Gov. Gavin Newsom last year issued stricter regulations on new fracking permits in the state. However, the state issued 24 new fracking permits in early April, and another 282 are awaiting review.
“This study is the first to characterize the implications for perinatal health of active oil and gas production in the state, and I think the results can inform decision-making in regulatory enforcement and permitting activities.” Morello-Frosch said. “Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active well activities and where people live, go to school and play. This scientific evidence of adverse health effects facing vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, should be taken into account as Californians debate the extent to which we to want to expand oil and gas drilling in our state.”
A long history of oil production
Previous research linking oil and gas production to adverse birth outcomes has examined people living near fracking sites in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas. Oil production in California differs from some of these other regions because the infrastructure is generally much older, and the state has a high number of inactive wells.
In addition, because of the geology of the region, many of the sites use enhancement techniques, including fracking and steam and water injection, to access oil reserves, said study lead author Kathy Tran, a graduate student in environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley,
“Even though the California oil and gas industry dates back to the early 1900s, there hasn’t been any analysis looking at potential health effects related to oil and gas exposure,” Tran said.
Both active and inactive oil and gas sites create a myriad of environmental hazards that have the potential to impact perinatal health, including air and water pollutants, noise and excessive lighting. However, with limited access to the production sites themselves, it can be hard for researchers to pinpoint precisely what factors might be contributing to adverse birth outcomes.
“A lot of the equipment that’s being operated on site is a contributor to air pollution, but how much air pollution is an unknown because the inventory industry reports are estimated based on emissions factors, as opposed to measured emissions levels.” Tran said. “We assume that with greater production volume, the equipment is being used more intensively. And for that reason, that may be a significant contributor to why we see some impacts related to adverse birth outcomes.”
The study corrected for a variety of demographic factors that might also impact birth outcomes, including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, maternal education, and other neighborhood-level factors, including other sources of air pollution.
While it’s unclear why the differences in birth weight were more pronounced in rural areas than in urban areas, the researchers hypothesize that other factors — such as differences in indoor air quality, maternal occupation or housing conditions — may have impacted the results.
In the future, Tran hopes that measurements of people’s actual exposure to potentially toxic pollutants from oil and gas sites will help pinpoint the culprits behind these findings.
“Because researchers don’t have direct access to the actual oil and gas sites, it’s hard to get a good estimate of what people actually experience,” Tran said. “Obviously, things like wind direction and water movement and other environmental conditions factor into personal exposure, as well. And for that reason, the more in-depth exposure assessment we can get, the more we can really understand why we are seeing the effects that we see.”
Co-authors of the study include Joan A. Casey of Columbia University and Lara J. Cushing of San Francisco State University.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) provided primary funding for this study (grant #18RD018) as part of its overall approach to determine the impacts of oil and gas operations on public health in California. Additional funding support was provided by the 11th Hour Project, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant K99/R00 ES027023, the UC Berkeley SAGE IGERT Fellowship and National Science Foundation grant #1144885.
2019: Pollution could be damaging your brain, even leading to dementia but Health Canada still not making public their 2012 damning report admitting significant health hazards and risks to groundwater and air caused by frac’ing!
2019: Pennsylvania escalating youth cancers in frac fields, Excellent response to Marcellus Shale Coalition’s latest propaganda: “We get it Mr. Spigelmyer, your job is to sell fracking…. We know the facts on the carcinogens your industry produces as do you, the endocrine disrupting chemicals it hides, and all the gagged litigants who held the smoking guns.”
2019: New Colorado Frac Study showing health harms. Industry official: “There are no long-term health impacts related to oil and gas development.” *Impossible* for any official to know that. If frac’ing causes short-term health harm via toxic chemicals, and harmed people continue living frac’d and poisoned by venting, flaring, leaking facilities, wells, uncleaned up spills as often happens in frac fields, the health harms become long-term.
2019: Washington County PA: Family members tell state to ‘fix’ cancer study. How many cancers/deaths in Alberta caused by frac/oil industry chemicals & pollution? How would we know? Authorities not looking, too busy blowing taxpayer money up their Hanky Panky asses, denying, lying, and changing names on propaganda machines to enable more carcinogenic oil industry pollution!
2019: Another study! Greater prevalence of congenital heart defects in areas with high intensity oil & gas well activity, Study provides further evidence of relationship between oil & gas and birth defects
2018: New Study: Frac chemical mix causes disturbing changes in breast tissue; Low levels of chemicals used in unconventional oil & gas production cause abnormal mammary glands and pre-cancerous lesions
2017: New peer-reviewed, published study by Lisa McKenzie et al, U Colorado School of Public Health: Childhood cancer linked to nearby oil and gas activity; People ages 5-24 diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia more likely to live in areas with a high concentration of oil and gas activity
2016: Two new peer-reviewed studies published after Florida significantly increases toxic chemicals allowed dumped in waterways: 1) Chemicals used in fracking, other gas, oil operations increase risk of miscarriages, reduced male fertility, prostate cancer, birth defects, preterm birth by disrupting hormones; 2) Lit review shows increased risk of negative reproductive effects from exposure to fracking, other oil, gas extraction activities, especially for miscarriages, reduced semen quality, prostate cancer, birth defects, preterm birth
2016: Albertans still don’t know what toxic oilfield chemicals their children are breathing. When will companies be ordered to fully disclose all chemicals, including trade secrets, before racing toxic truck loads through school zones, by hospitals, where children play, and before injected, spilled, dumped, spread on foodlands, flared, vented, spewed from endless facilities?
2015: Prevent Cancer Now calls out AER’s Health Fraud! “The AER has no jurisdiction for human health, and Alberta is famed for a chill against the medical community linking ill health to petrochemicals.”
2015: Pennsylvania Study Links Fracking to Health Hazards in Fetuses, Infants, Young Children: 35.1% more cancer in children ages zero to four in heavily frac’d counties. Compare to AER’s Monique Dube’s belittling, lying, dismissive, privacy law-violating health studies in the Lochend and near Didsbury
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
2015: Sounds like Alberta (Again)! Utah energy boomtown turns on midwife who raised concerns over apparent spike in infant deaths: “Could the deaths be tied to the oil industry, the region’s economic powerhouse?”
2014: Des malformations congénitales liées à l’extraction du gaz naturel; New study links fracking to birth defects in heavily drilled Colorado, Risks of some birth defects increased as much as 30 percent in mothers who lived near oil and gas wells
2014: Study, rural Colorado: Positive association observed between greater density, proximity of natural gas wells within 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of congenital heart defects and possibly neural tube defects
2014: Colorado Investigates a Spike in Fetal Abnormalities Near Natural Gas Drilling Site, A prevalence of anomalies such as low birth weight and congenital heart defects are found within a 10 mile radius of a concentration of gas wells
2013: Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in ground and surface water at fracking sites, Peer reviewed study of fracking sites in Garfield County Colorado finds chemicals linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer
2012: Encana’s waste dumped on foodland near Rosebud
2012!! First Study of Its Kind Detects 44 Hazardous Air Pollutants at Gas Drilling Sites, With gas wells in some states being drilled near schools and homes, scientists see a need for better chemical disclosure laws and follow-up research
Methylene chloride, a toxic solvent not reported in products used in drilling or hydraulic fracturing, was detected 73% of the time; several times in high concentrations.
Alberta allowed about 171,000 oil and gas wells to be hydraulically fractured without this critical information and continues to do so….
2011: Encana dumping waste on the same foodland as a year later (photo above)
For many years, drillers have insisted that they do not use toxic chemicals to drill for gas, only guar gum, mud, and sand. While much attention is being given to chemicals used during fracking, our findings indicate that drilling chemicals can be equally, if not more dangerous.