Fracking and Birth Defects: Officials Investigate the Link

Fracking, or extracting natural gas and oil from underneath rocks, has led government officials to probe what, if any, birth defects it may cause in infants born near wells where fracking occurred.

According to reports, fracking occurs when chemicals, sand, and water are blasted through ground in order to extract fuel and oils from rocks. While fracking may help the United States gain lead in becoming more self-sufficient with energy, it also may cause birth defects in infants.

Lisa McKenzie, from the Colorado School of Public Health and one of the researchers on a study regarding birth defects, states that it’s still to early to understand how and why birth defects may occur because of fracking, but it’s something that’s being investigated thoroughly.

“It’s not really well understood how the environment interacts with genetics to produce these birth defects. We really need to do more study to see what the association is, if any, with natural gas development,” said McKenzie.

During research, McKenzie, along with a few of her colleagues, discovered that infants who were born to mothers who lived near gas wells in Colorado were two times more likely to develop congenital heart defects. In Pennsylvania, two other studies suggest that babies born close to fracking sites suffer from low birth weight and developmental problems. Other studies in Utah indicate a higher rate of stillborn births for infants who are born near areas in which the mother breathes in toxic fumes from gas and oil industries.

Mckenzie’s research shows that mothers who live within a mile or so of 125 or more wells have a 30% increase of having infants with birth defects, but mothers who live 10 miles or more away from wells do not have a heightened risk. However, more research is needed to determine if fracking actually caused the birth defects, or if other factors, such as genetics, played a part.

The risks of babies being born around fracking has already been established. The investigation, however, is focusing more on the laws concerning how to deal with birth defects, should they happen to occur.

“The question isn’t are there risks. The question is, are there rules and regulations in place that effectively mitigate these risks and deal with problems should they occur, and the answer is yes,” Steve Everely, spokesperson for Energy In Depth, a fracking company, states.

Meanwhile, officials are advising pregnant women and mothers to not rely on the findings until more research is done.

“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.  Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study,” wrote  Larry Wolk, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Mckenzie has recently started another study, financially backed by the American Heart Association (AHA), in which she will research how pollutants and parental occupations are linked with birth defects. Again, however, many people, especially those in the gas and oil business, suggest that it’s still much too soon for parents to pack up and move if they live near wells.

“It’s way too early to jump to conclusions. It’s a real big leap that I don’t think you can draw at this time at all, if ever, to say that because air pollution can cause birth defects, that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Kathleen Sgamma, a spokesperson who represents Pioneer Natural Resources Co., Anadarko Petroleum Corp., and Western Energy Alliance.

Some medical experts, however, disagree, and feel that this is something that needs to be taken as seriously as possible.

“Whenever you see a pollution nightmare, if you look hard enough you’re going to have a public health nightmare. There’s enough evidence to suggest that this is a serious problem,” said Dr. Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City, Utah anesthesiologist.