Research & Commentary: Study’s Attempt to Link Hydraulic Fracturing to Adverse Infant Health Issues Is Flawed

Published December 22, 2017

Researchers at Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Chicago are claiming their new study examining hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” and its impact on infant health provides “the strongest large-scale evidence of a link between the pollution that stems from hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies.” However, the data contained in the paper are contradictory and do not support the authors’ dire conclusion.

The study’s researchers used records for 1.1 million births throughout Pennsylvania over a 10-year period, beginning in 2004. The researchers compared the health of infants born closer to fracking sites with those born farther away, both before and after drilling began taking place at that site. “The most significant impacts were seen among babies born within 0.6 miles of a site, as those babies were 25 percent more likely to be low birth weight, that is born under 5.5 pounds,” the accompanying press release says. “Infants born to mothers living between half a mile and 2 miles saw their risk of low birth weight decrease by about a half to a third. Infants born to mothers living beyond 2 miles experienced little to no impact to their health.”

This claim, while remarkable, doesn’t hold up when considered along the researchers’ other data, which show there was a higher risk of low birth weight for mothers who lived 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from a drilling site than those who lived 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) away. This one fact dismisses the study’s entire conclusion, because an honest researcher would not come to the conclusion that the closer a person lives to a drilling site, the more likely he or she is to have health issues if people living further from a site have more pervasive health effects than those living closer to it.

The study’s researchers also admit the mothers “whose babies were potentially exposed to nearby fracturing in utero are younger, less likely to have been married at the time of the birth, and less educated—characteristics that might lead to worse infant health outcomes even in the absence of fracturing.” In this claim, the authors admit the sample population would be expected to have worse health impacts even without nearby fracking operations. There is also no evidence the researchers controlled for drug, alcohol, or tobacco use.

Also, as Seth Whitehead at Energy in Depth points out, data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health show infant mortality rates in the most heavily drilled counties in Pennsylvania are declining faster than those in the rest of the state. In 2014, these infant mortality rates in the six most heavily drilled counties were lower than the state average. Further, low birth weight rates “were at or below the state’s average rates at the same time fertility rates increased from 2000 to 2014 in Pennsylvania’s six most heavily-drilled counties.”

Whitehead also notes there have been “no fewer than five studies based on actual air measurements [emphasis in original] in Pennsylvania have found production emissions are protective of public health. … The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has also found that thanks to natural gas, emissions have been reduced by over 500 million tons.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates fracking now accounts for over 50 percent of all crude oil production in the United States and the fracking revolution has transformed the energy outlook of the country over the past decade. EIA also notes the continuing switch of electricity-generation fuels to fracking-produced natural gas is responsible for 63 percent of the drop in U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions over the past decade. The rise of hydraulically fractured shale gas as a replacement for coal has been primarily responsible for the United States now enjoying its lowest level of carbon-dioxide emissions since 1989, as well as the large declines in air pollution over the past decade.

Fracking is safe, responsible, and has had an enormous positive impact on the economy at the macro and micro levels. State lawmakers should pass and support laws that protect frackers’ ability to continue their operations and expand their businesses.

The following documents provide more information about hydraulic fracturing.

Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking
This compendium from Energy in Depth features data from 23 peer-reviewed studies, 17 government health and regulatory agencies, and reports from 10 research institutions that demonstrate fracking is linked to numerous health benefits.

The Local Economic and Welfare Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing
This comprehensive study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says fracking brings, on average, provide $1,300–$1,900 in annual benefits to local households, including a 7 percent increase in average income, a 10 percent increase in employment, and a 6 percent increase in housing prices.

Impacts of the Natural Gas and Oil Industry on the U.S. Economy in 2015
This study, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, shows that the natural gas and oil industry supported 10.3 million U.S. jobs in 2015. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage paid by the natural gas and oil industry, excluding retail station jobs, was $101,181 in 2016, which is nearly 90 percent more than the national average. The study also shows the natural gas and oil industry has had widespread impacts in each of the 50 states.

What If … Hydraulic Fracturing Was Banned?
This study is the fourth in a series of studies produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. It examines what a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing would entail. The report’s authors found by 2022, a ban would cause 14.8 million jobs to “evaporate,” almost double gasoline and electricity prices, and increase natural gas prices by 400 percent. Moreover, cost of living expenses would increase by nearly $4,000 per family, household incomes would be reduced by $873 billion, and GDP would be reduced by $1.6 trillion.

What If … America’s Energy Renaissance Never Happened?
This report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy examines the impact the development of shale oil and gas has had on the United States. The report’s authors found that without the fracking-related “energy renaissance,” 4.3 million jobs in the United States may not have been created and $548 billion in annual GDP may have disappeared since 2009. Electricity prices would also be 31 percent higher and gasoline prices 43 percent higher.

Bill McKibben’s Terrifying Disregard for Fracking Facts
This Heartland Institute Policy Study, written by Research Fellow Isaac Orr, examines how methane emissions are measured, reports the effect those emissions may have on global warming, and discusses several falsehoods journalist Bill McKibben repeats from the discredited movie Gasland. It also evaluates the available fracking alternatives and discusses the relatively small impact new methane-emissions rules enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency will likely have on Earth’s climate.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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