A new study is causing alarm over fracking, but an industry group says it lacks evidence.
Researchers from Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Chicago analyzed more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013, comparing infants born to mothers living at different distances from active fracking* sites and those born before and after fracking was initiated at each site:
"We adjusted for fixed maternal determinants of infant health by comparing siblings who were and were not exposed to fracking sites in utero. We found evidence for negative health effects of in utero exposure to fracking sites within 3 km of a mother's residence, with the largest health impacts seen for in utero exposure within 1 km of fracking sites. Negative health impacts include a greater incidence of low-birth weight babies as well as significant declines in average birth weight and in several other measures of infant health. There is little evidence for health effects at distances beyond 3 km, suggesting that health impacts of fracking are highly local. Informal estimates suggest that about 29,000 of the nearly 4 million annual U.S. births occur within 1 km of an active fracking site and that these births therefore may be at higher risk of poor birth outcomes."
The study caught the attention of several news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, which said babies born to moms who lived near fracking wells faced a host of health risks.
"The first thing that jumps out, right off the bat when you read this study, is the fact that the study is based entirely on correlation rather than measurements of pollutants," says Seth Whitehead of Energy in Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign for the oil and gas industry.
"They assume pollution in the study and also characterize the study in the media as being 'proof of causation.' But as we've seen with many studies of this nature in the past, it's based on no measurements at all – and that's a major flaw of the study that the authors concede in the study and then turn around and talk in the media about so-called 'proof of causation' and proof that fracking is harmful without any evidence to back it up."
Why should someone believe what Energy in Depth has about fracking on its websites? The organization has several websites, including one devoted to health matters.
"There certainly are people out there who are skeptical of our opinion of these type of things, but our critiques are based on thorough reviews of the studies and we try to apply the scrutiny that the media tends to not apply but probably should be applied," answers Whitehead.
"For instance, I didn't see any reports on one of the major funders of this study also funding groups like National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Earthworks, giving them $10 million; and these are groups that have actively tried to ban fracking. So it's really up to us in the industry to step up and defend ourselves."
As part of that defense, Seth Whitehead wrote a blog for Energy in Depth titled "Six Flaws In A New Report Trying To Link Fracking To Infant Health Issues."
* Fracking, also known as "hydraulic fracturing," is the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources such as oil or natural gas.