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October 10, 2015

Study: Gas drilling, premature births linked in Pennsylvania

Pregnant women near highest drilling activity had 40 percent higher risk of giving birth before 37 weeks

Health News Drilling
032715_fracking3 Keith Srakocic/AP

In this photo made on Wednesday, July 27, 2011, a Pennsylvania worker stands on top of a storage bin as the dust of the powder used to make a mixture with water used in the hydraulic fracturing process billows above.

According to a study released earlier this week, women in Pennsylvania have a higher risk of premature births and high-risk pregnancies when they are exposed to unconventional natural gas development, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The study, conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, reached its conclusions using data on more than 10,000 babies born in Pennsylvania's shale gas region, which has more than 8,000 unconventional gas wells, according to State Impact.

Mothers who lived near the heaviest gas industry activity had a 40 percent greater risk of giving birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy than women who lived in areas where the industry was less active. The study also found a 30 percent increase in pregnancies labeled high-risk for women who lived in these areas of northern and central Pennsylvania.

Of the 10,946 babies born during the study's January 2009-January 2013 timeframe, 11 percent were born before 37 weeks, qualifying them as premature births. The study used data from the Geisinger Health System, covering 40 counties in Pennsylvania, and measured gas industry activity using factors such as distance to drilling, date and duration of well-pad development and production volume during pregnancy.

The study did not reach any specific conclusions about why the exposure put pregnant mothers at risk for premature birth, study leader Dr. Brian Schwartz said that would be next line of inquiry. The two leading candidates, he said, are air quality and stress.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said that officials were reviewing the study, which Schwartz urged should serve as a guide for industry regulation.

The study advances the findings of several others that have explored the relationship between unconventional gas drilling and consequences for pregnant women. A 2014 study from the University of Rochester found that gas drilling was linked to lower birth weight among babies in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Another study out of the University of Colorado, between 1996-2009, found an association between density and proximity of gas wells and congenital heart defects in infants.

Earlier this year, a joint project by the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University established a link between higher hospitalization rates and natural gas activity in Pennsylvania's shale territory.

Schwartz said the Hopkins study, which provides one of the most comprehensive analyses to date, should raise concern and stimulate further research into the effects of natural gas development on human health.

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