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Fracking Harms Health of Infants Born Nearby, UChicago Study Finds

Babies born within 2 miles of a fracking site are more likely to be born at a low birth weight, increasing their risk of asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and infant mortality, according to a new study co-authored by a professor at the University of Chicago.

Those born within about a half-mile of a fracking site faced the greatest risks: the study found they were 25 percent more likely than the general population to have a low birth weight.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, represent the first peer-reviewed study to provide large-scale evidence of fracking’s health impacts on infants.

“If you live near a hydraulic fracturing site and you’re pregnant, the results are certainly troubling,” said Michael Greenstone, director of UChicago’s Energy Policy Institute and a co-author of the study.

Michael Greenstone (Courtesy University of Chicago)Michael Greenstone (Courtesy University of Chicago) Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses high-pressure chemicals and water to create cracks and release oil and gas from shale formations deep beneath the Earth’s surface. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency linked fracking to possible water contamination, and the practice has been associated with increased risk of earthquakes.

This summer, Illinois signed off on its first fracking permit despite pushback from environmental watchdogs and community-based groups. But the company approved to drill the state’s first well for fracking soon withdrew its permit, citing market conditions and Illinois’ “burdensome and costly” regulations.

Despite fracking’s environmental and health risks, Greenstone said the practice has allowed the U.S. to increase production of oil and natural gas to unprecedented levels, leading to lower energy prices, stronger energy security and even lower air pollution by displacing coal in electricity generation.

A separate study co-authored by Greenstone last year found that communities tend to benefit from allowing fracking, with the average household living near a drilling site benefitting by about $1,900 per year due to increases in income, employment and housing prices.

“My own view is that it would be a mistake to view [the study’s findings] in isolation from the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, [such as] lower energy prices and reduced pollution,” said Greenstone, who is also an economics professor at UChicago.

For the study published Wednesday, Greenstone worked with Princeton economics professor Janet Currie and UCLA assistant professor of economics Katherine Meckel to examine records from more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013. The researchers compared infants born to mothers living near a drilling site to those living farther from the site both before and after drilling began.

(Click to enlarge)(Click to enlarge)

Focusing on the health of newborns allowed the researchers to draw conclusions about the impacts of nearby fracking sites, given that babies are particularly vulnerable to health shocks. It also made it possible to pinpoint the timing of the exposure based on the in utero period.

According to the study, about 29,000 of the roughly 4 million annual births in the U.S. occur within roughly a half-mile of a fracking site. Infants born to mothers living more than 2 miles from a site saw little to no impact.

“Hydraulic fracturing is the biggest change in the energy system in the last half century, and it’s produced very large benefits for the country as a whole, with lower energy prices, lower carbon dioxide emissions and reduced air pollution,” Greenstone said. “But our ability to have access to those benefits over the long run is going to be determined by whether or not local communities find it desirable or advantageous to allow hydraulic fracturing.”

Greenstone said the findings could lead to further studies examining the health impacts of fracking in different stages of life.

Contact Alex Ruppenthal: @arupp aruppenthal@wttw.com | (773) 509-5623


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