Saturday, February 1, 2014

New Study Shows Increased Rate of Birth Defects near Gas Wells

Yesterday, the Joint Landowners Coalition of NY threatened to sue the state if DEC doesn't hurry up and release the SGEIS to allow drilling - and fracking - in New York. This was in response to DEC chief Joseph Martens' comment a couple days earlier that the state had no plans to issue permits for fracking. DEC is waiting for Dr. Shah to complete the health impact review.

While the delay irks some landowners, many others appreciate the extra time, as new findings continue to come in regarding water, air and health impacts related to gas drilling.

On the same day the landowners emailed and Fed-Exxed their demands to permit fracking, Colorado researchers released their findings that show that babies born near gas wells have increased rates for certain birth defects.

The new study shows that women living near gas wells in rural Colorado are more likely to have babies with neural tube and congenital heart defects. These findings add to the already growing concern about health impacts from air pollution at drilling sites, compressor stations and other infrastructure.

Lisa McKenzie and her research team from the Colorado School of Public Health analyzed birth defects among nearly 125,000 births in rural Colorado. They chose towns with fewer than 50,000 residents and examined records from 1996 - 2009, paying particular attention to how close the mothers lived to gas wells.

What they found: babies born to mothers who lived in areas with the highest density of wells (more than 125 wells/ mile) were more than twice as likely to have neural tube defects as babies born to mothers living at least 10 miles away from gas wells. Babies in the high-well density zone also had a 38 percent greater risk of congenital heart defects as children born in areas with no wells.

"Taken together, our results and current trend in natural gas development underscore the importance of conducting more comprehensive and rigorous research on the potential health effects of natural gas development," McKenzie et al wrote in their article published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.  The researchers admit that their study was limited in that they didn't have access to the mothers' health information, socioeconomic information, or actual exposures to air pollutants. They also knew only if a gas well existed in the year of the births - not how active it was - and they assumed that the address of the mother at time of birth was the same as during her first trimester.

Given that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates that 26 percent of  wells in Colorado are located within 150 to 1,000 feet of homes, these findings offer yet one more reason for DEC to overhaul - or withdraw - their proposed fracking regulations.


  1. Good article, Sue, but I wanted to comment on your statement re the highest density of wells in the study being more than 125/mile. I think some people may think this was a typo and/or may be asking themselves if it should be per square mile and/or may be asking themselves how many places have more than 125 gas wells per square mile.

    These are questions I was asking myself when I first saw that number quoted in news articles about the study, so I read the study itself ( to try to find out what was going on.

    It turns out that the researchers (reasonably enough) wanted a way to assess exposure, which you cannot really do with a straight count of the number of wells within a given area, since in some cases the wells may be very close to homes, and in other cases they may be farther away. So the researchers used an "inverse distance weighted" approach which they say is used in air pollution studies. This approach, as the paper states, gives "greater weight to wells closest to the maternal residence. For example, an IDW well count of 125 wells per mile could be computed from 125 wells each located 1 mile from the maternal residence or 25 wells each located 0.2 miles from the maternal residence."

    The paper also notes that "Recent data indicate that exposure to NGD activities is increasingly common. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates that 26% of the more than 47,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado are located within 150 to 1000 feet of a home or other type of building intended for human occupancy."