Home Sciences Impacts of fracking: pollution, premature births and serious damage to children’s health

Impacts of fracking: pollution, premature births and serious damage to children’s health


“We found consistent and strong evidence that drilling for shale gas (fracking) has a negative impact on both drinking water quality and children’s health”. This clear and forceful phrase appears in the first paragraph of a study carried out by American scientists that has just been published in the journal ‘Journal of Health Economics’.

This research documents for the first time the contamination of public water supplies caused by fracking, and its negative impact on births and child development. These findings, according to the researchers, call for a “stricter environmental regulation of the fracking industry”, as levels of chemicals found in drinking water, while harmful, often fall below regulatory thresholds.

“In this study, we provide evidence that public drinking water quality compromised by shale gas development”, highlights Elaine Hill, associate professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences, Economics, and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester. “Our findings indicate that drilling near public water sources produces more contaminants and worse birth outcomes”.

But the damage caused by fracking does not stop there, because according to this research, there is a subsequent impact “on educational attainment, increased risk of childhood asthma exacerbation, increased risk of heart attacks, and increased risk of opioid deaths”.

The study thus questions fracking, which has found great supporters around the world because generates employment and immediate economic benefitsbut “without fully understanding the long-term environmental and health consequences for the communities in which the drilling takes place”, warn the researchers.

Large social costs

The scientists conducted a complex examination of the geographic expansion of shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania, United States, between 2006 and 2015, a period of time during which they settled in that state. more than 19,000 wells.

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To do so, they mapped the location of each new well in relation to groundwater sources that supply public drinking water, and linked this information to maternal residences supplied by those aquifers in birth records and groundwater contamination measurements from the United States Geological Survey.

This data set allowed us to identify child health outcomes, specifically the premature birth and low birth weight –before, during and after the drilling activity–.

“Both preterm birth and low birth weight are associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including an increased risk of developing behavioral and social-emotional problems, and learning difficulties”, point out the researchers.

In addition, fracking-related chemicals, including dangerous volatile organic compounds, are making their way into groundwater that feeds municipal water supplies, and the potential for contamination is greatest during the pre-production periodwhen a new well is established.

“These findings indicate great social costs by water pollution generated by an emerging industry with little environmental regulation,” says Hill.

Fracking is a technique for extracting unconventional hydrocarbons, such as shale gas (methane trapped in small pockets in rock formations). This technique consists of drilling vertically underground (from one thousand to five thousand meters) and then horizontally (from one thousand to four thousand meters) and inject a fluid at very high pressure to fracture rocks that contain hydrocarbons that are difficult to access and thus release them. The fluid is made up of a mixture of water, sand and different polluting chemicals.

Advantages and risks of fracking

The technique of hydraulic fracturing has awakened concern and motivated mobilizations and resistance in many communities, regions and countries of the world for the serious damage to health and the environment what it could entail. But he also has defenders..

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In 2018, the United Nations produced a report from a “dispassionate perspective” on the advantages and disadvantages of fracking. Among the first, natural gas must contribute to a “gradual transition from the current economic model to one with low emissions”, in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in the year 2030; especially, the one referring to guaranteeing “universal access to affordable electricity”.

This “bridge” that natural gas supposes between one economy and another is based mainly on the fact that its emissions are 40% lower than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, according to the UN. In addition, it offers the advantage that can be stored and used when energy demand requires it and cannot be covered by renewable energies.

Disadvantages include the fact that natural gas it is also a fossil fuel and emits carbon dioxide when burned. Besides, one of its main components, methane, has a warming potential 28 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

“Large amounts of water used for fracturing have raised concerns, as well as risks of contamination of groundwater and surface water generated by the operations for their extraction”, stated the UN report, which added the possibility of seismic events because of fracking, something that was confirmed last year by a study carried out by German and Canadian scientists.

Reference report: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167629622000157


Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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