Want a Healthy Baby? Avoid Fracking

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Fracking wells are often located within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, and farms. Flaring well in Bradford County, PA. Credit: 2012 Les Stone/Corbis

Last December, I recounted my trip to West Virginia’s fracking fields and I concluded that fracking’s air pollution was disgusting, toxic, and legal: “I could smell the emissions from both Lyndia’s old gas well and condensate tank, and it didn’t take a scientist to figure out it can’t be good to breathe that stuff.”

Turns out, scientists have now concluded that it’s probably not good to breathe fracking’s air pollution, especially if you’re a mom-to-be. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently published a study validating two serious health outcomes for moms living in high fracking areas: a forty percent increase in premature deliveries, and a thirty percent increase in high-risk pregnancies. 

With 15 million Americans across 22 states now living within 1 mile of fracking, how long will elected officials continue to support an energy extraction that not only drives climate change and industrializes rural communities, but also hurts future generations where it matters the most – in utero?

Percent Increase in preemies: 40

In 2013, anecdotal reports surfaced about an increase in stillbirths in Utah’s heavily fracked areas. A 2014 Colorado-based study linked birth defects to living near fracking and older conventional gas drilling. It’s suspected that high levels of fracking air pollution was the cause of the negative birth outcomes. Though the studies showed a link, there wasn’t enough data to pinpoint the cause of the negative birth outcomes, and peel away lots of variable factors. 

The Johns Hopkins team, however, was able to pinpoint the actual levels of fracking activity that pregnant women were exposed to with the help of Geisinger Health System’s electronic health records. Two Geisinger hospitals are located smack in the middle of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale fracking boom.

Overlaying electronic health records with demographic, clinical and environmental data (even drinking water sources) to adjust for variables that could influence birth outcomes, the researchers narrowed the data set down to 9,384 moms who delivered babies between 2009-2013, a heavy fracking timeframe. Matching each mom’s residence to actual fracking well and gas production stats, the team was able to assess which mothers were exposed to heavy fracking activity compared to those who were not.

Here’s what they found:

  1. Moms who experienced the highest exposure to gas production saw a 40 percent increase in preterm births. Most preemies were delivered in weeks 32 – 37.  Some before 32 weeks. Normal pregnancies reach 40 weeks. The study found no association with Apgar scores or birth weight. Delivering a baby prematurely is the top cause of infant deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the consequences of preterm deliveries can be life-altering: cerebral palsy, ADHD, hearing loss, respiratory issues, and serious development delays.
  2. The same group of moms living with the highest levels of gas production, also experienced a 30 increase in high-risk pregnancies. Joan A. Casey, the lead researcher, described how Geisinger’s electronic health records were key, “We discovered in post hoc analysis the doctor-recorded high-risk pregnancy notes once we sifted through the data.”
  3. Interestingly, moms in heavily fracked areas were also prescribed higher rates of antibiotics during their pregnancy, possibly suggesting higher infection rates.

Dr. Brian Schwartz sums up the study’s results: “Now that we know this is happening, we’d like to figure out why. Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They’re the two leading candidates in our minds at this point.”

You can smell fracking’s air pollution

Usually called the banal term, “fugitive emissions,” fracking’s air pollution is the gas that escapes the entire fracking system into the air. To get natural gas from deep underground to market, gas producers rely on a system of pipes, tanks, compressors, and storage units. If you spend any amount of time near heavily fracked areas, you can smell the fugitive emissions. You can only see the emissions with an infrared camera. It’s estimated the system leaks between 3 – 9 percent. Newly fracked wells purposefully release gas and chemicals through flaring to relieve pressure, and the ubiquitous condensate tanks (pictured below) constantly vent natural gas and its chemicals.

Condensate tanks dot fracking fields, and vent gas consistently. Infrared picture on the right illustrates fracking's fugitive emissions.
Condensate tanks dot fracking fields, and vent gas consistently. Infrared picture on the right illustrates fracking’s fugitive emissions.

What’s in fugitive emissions? Though mostly non-toxic methane, the balance is either nasty, cancer-causing, or has an OSHA-don’t-breathe-code: hydrogen sulfide, ethane, barium, arsenic, aldehydes, the volatile organic compounds benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and zylene, radon and radioactive products, formaldehydes, carbon monoxide, glycols, and silica dust.

Another term for fugitive emissions could just be chemical poisoning.

Why is fracking’s air pollution legal?

The oil and gas industry is exempted from parts of the Clean Air Act, and 6 other big federal environmental laws. Even as the 1970 Clean Air Act was updated in 1990 to include another 180 pollutants, oil and gas got a pass. With no federal laws, states regulate fracking’s air pollution, and that’s an entire article on its own about lax state laws. In short: loophole city.

The industry maintains that it has “slashed” methane emissions, and reports that Pennsylvania-area emissions have dropped from 3.8 to 3.4 mmt between 2011 and 2013. A 10 percent drop isn’t exactly slashing, and this may explain why the Appalachian Basin graph #7 uses y-axis values between 3 – 4, not 0 – 4.  But emissions are dropping as gas production rises, and it’s imperative industry continues ‘green’ well completions and better maintain fracking’s equipment. 

WYPR’s Environment in Focus Tom Pelton aired a terrific radio interview with the study’s Dr. Brian Schwartz. At minute 2:20 during the interview, industry spokesperson Travis Windle of the Marcellus Shale Coalition says, “we’ve seen an enhancement, not a degradation of any sort as it relates to air quality.”

I know that Lyndia Ervoline does not think the sky-high fracking air pollution recorded in her home is an “enhancement.” Lyndia was my host in West Virginia, and her home sits within one mile from 10 fracking wells, and 75 feet from a condensate tank. Lyndia’s indoor air was monitored over one month. Lyndia’s report revealed that air particulate counts exceeded the healthy maximum (2,000 particles) 27 times. The highest reading was 17,422 pollution particles.

What the Hell

How is this research not a red-line moment in this country’s support of plopping fracking right next to 15 million Americans? Even if further research can prove exactly which fracking factor is causing mothers to deliver preterm babies, does it matter? The stress of living near industrialized fracking and fracking’s air pollution go hand-in-hand.

Why are elected officials not as infuriated as I am that an industry can alter a woman’s chance of having a healthy child? No entity has the right to make that callous and immoral choice for another person. There aren’t many life events more stressful that a high risk pregnancy and a baby delivered early. 

Federal environmental laws exist to avoid this exact situation. U.S. profit-making entities should not be allowed to knowingly pollute toxic chemicals, and then offload their business costs of plugging those leaks onto another party. Especially to unborn babies, who have no say in choosing to have fracking introduced in their residential community. 

Yet, when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new methane regulations on the oil and gas industry, the rules apply only to new fracking wells. Not to the wells near Pennsylvania’s moms, or to Lyndia’s condensate tank. What about the 100,000 fracking wells, and their pipes, compressor stations, condensate tanks and natural gas storage facilities that are currently across the country spewing chemicals and methane? The answer is those units will continue to legally emit natural gas and its chemicals.

How many human health studies, how much lost fresh water, how many poisoned drinking wells, how many worker deaths, how many chemical spills, and how many preemie babies, will it take for our elected officials to force this industry to pollute less? Why does our country eliminate the liabilities of an energy extraction system that harms not only our environment, but future generations? So far, the answer has been: cash is king.

Laurel Peltier
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  1. Thank you for another excellent article, Laurel Peltier, to help educate Marylanders about fracking. I’d like to hear from Maryland Secretaries of Environment, and Health & Mental Hygiene, on why it’s OK to subject Maryland families to these risks, and their strategies—if they have them—for protecting the unborn, the young, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to fracking pollution. All of us are vulnerable when breathing volatile organic compounds; why do we have no say in this?

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