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.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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 (Authored by researchers from Princeton, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is not yet peer-reviewed or publicly available but was presented in January.)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. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

A Cabot drill at a hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania. Photo: Getty
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Liberal Democrats pledge to take Britain back into the European Union

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is channeling the anger of the 48 per cent. 

The Liberal Democrats took losing 49 seats in the General Election last year with more resignation than you might expect. 

But it turns out there's one thing they'll kick up a fuss about - Europe.

As half of the nation digested the facts of Brexitgeddon, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron stole the show with his refusal to discuss voter breakdown.

He told the BBC: 'I accept the result, but by golly I don't agree with it." 

Now he has pledged to fight the next General Election on a platform taking Britain back into Europe.

Farron, who has accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of "utter spinelessness", will tap into the growing discontent of Remain voters about the referendum result. 

With cries of "we are the 48 per cent", these voters argue such a decisive move should be dependent on more than a 50% majority. By Saturday afternoon, more than 1.6million had signed a petition calling on the Government to implement a rule that if the turnout was less than 75% and the vote in favour less than 60%, a second referendum should be called. 

The petitioners appear to come from university towns like Oxford, Cambridge and York, as well as larger cities. 

Farron said: “For many millions of people, this was not just a vote about Europe. It was a howl of anger at politicians and institutions who they felt they were out of touch and had let them down.
 
"The British people deserve the chance not to be stuck with the appalling consequences of a Leave campaign that stoked that anger with the lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove.
 
"The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election on a clear and unequivocal promise to restore British prosperity and role in the world, with the United Kingdom in the European Union, not out."

There's no doubting Farron's genuine indignation, or the Lib Dem's credentials when it comes to pro-EU pledges. And tapping into the groundswell of pro-EU sentiment is a smart move.

And his clear position makes a stark contrast to Labour's inward angst over immigration, free trade and leadership. 

But as EU leaders demand a quick resolution to Brexit, he may have less and less chance to implement his promise before it's too late.