Evidence is mounting in the US that fracking causes birth defects

A study in Colorado has found that as the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood that her baby would develop a heart problem.

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In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama praised natural gas as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change” and vowed to “cut red tape” to help business invest in it. But two studies released this winter bolster long-held fears that the extraction process, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, presents serious dangers for human health – and in particular, the health of the unborn.

One of the studies was conducted in Colorado, where some cities have sought a moratorium on fracking and industry has pushed back, by public health scientists from the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University. The central finding is a strong correlation between proximity to fracking wells and congenital heart defects. As the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood that her baby would develop a heart problem. Strikingly, “Births to mothers in the most exposed tertile [an exposure level equal to 125 wells within mile of the home] had a 30 per cent greater prevalence of CHDs [congenital heart defects]…than births to mothers with no wells within a 10-mile radius of their residence.”

The authors also saw some evidence that fracking wells upped the incidence of neurological defects, though only at high levels of exposure. They looked for a correlation with oral clefts, low birth weight, and premature birth, but did not find that fracking made them more likely.

A study in Pennsylvania, another state rich in natural gas, had different but worrisome findings. (Authored by researchers from Princeton, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is not yet peer-reviewed or publicly available but was presented in January.) As Mark Whitehouse of Bloomberg View wrote last month, “They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 per cent to more than 9 per cent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 per cent.”

Although fracking has frequently been linked to water contamination, Whitehouse notes that drinking chemicals does not seem to pose the greatest risk during pregnancy. “The researchers found similar results for mothers who had access to regularly monitored public water systems and mothers who relied on the kind of private wells that fracking is most likely to affect,” he writes. “Another possibility is that infants are being harmed by air pollution associated with fracking activity.” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that prior studies have linked the ambient presence of chemicals released during natural gas extraction, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene, to birth defects.

Colorado’s pro-fracking administration and industry groups have already rejected the critical study – as conservative outlets like The Daily Caller were quick to point out. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, discounted the findings because “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” – even though the authors acknowledged alcohol use, smoking, and myriad other potential “covariates”.

“I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” Wolk huffed. But as studies like these continue to emerge, their warnings will be increasingly difficult to ignore. 

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A Cabot drill at a hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.