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 (Authored by researchers from Princeton, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is not yet peer-reviewed or publicly available but was presented in January.)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
Photo: Getty
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What does François Bayrou's endorsement of Emmanuel Macron mean for the French presidential race?

The support of the perennial candidate for President will boost Macron's morale but won't transform his electoral standing. 

François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Democratic Movement and a candidate for the French presidency in 2007 and 2012, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s bid for the presidency.

What does it mean for the presidential race?  Under the rules of the French electoral system, if no candidate secures more than half the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off.

Since 2013, Marine Le Pen has consistently led in the first round before going down to defeat in the second, regardless of the identity of her opponents, according to the polls.

However, national crises – such as terror attacks or the recent riots following the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man, who was sodomised with a police baton – do result in a boost for Le Pen’s standing, as does the ongoing “Penelopegate” scandal about the finances of the centre-right candidate, François Fillon.

Macron performs the most strongly of any candidate in the second round but struggles to make it into the top two in the first. Having eked out a clear lead in second place ahead of Fillon in the wake of Penelopegate, Macron’s lead has fallen back in recent polls after he said that France’s rule in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

Although polls show that the lion’s share of Bayrou’s supporters flow to Macron without his presence in the race, with the rest going to Fillon and Le Pen, Macron’s standing has remained unchanged regardless of whether or not Bayrou is in the race or not. So as far as the electoral battlefield is concerned, Bayrou’s decision is not a gamechanger.

But the institutional support of the Democratic Movement will add to the ability of Macron’s new party, En Marche, to get its voters to the polls on election day, though the Democratic Movement has never won a vast number of deputies or regional elections. It will further add to the good news for Macron following a successful visit to London this week, and, his supporters will hope, will transform the mood music around his campaign.

But hopes that a similar pact between Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, and Jean-Luc Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s candidate, look increasingly slim, after Mélenchon said that joining up with the Socialists would be like “hanging himself to a hearse”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.