A new study of Pennsylvania counties published this week in the Journal of Environmental Protection shows for the first time that contamination from fracking kills babies.
The Marcellus shale area of Pennsylvania was one of the first regions where novel gas drilling involving hydraulic fracturing of sub-surface rock, now termed 'fracking', was carried out.
The epidemiological study by Christopher Busby and Joseph Mangano examines early infant deaths 0-28 days before and after the drilling of fracking wells, using official data from the US Centre for Disease Control to compare the immediate post-fracking four-year period 2007-2010 with the pre-fracking four-year period 2003-2006.
Results showed a statistically significant 29% excess risk of dying age 0-28 days in the ten heavily fracked counties of Pennsylvania during the four-year period following the development of fracking gas wells. Over the same period, the State rate declined by 2%. They conclude:
"There were about 50 more babies died in these 10 counties than would have been predicted if the rate had been the same over the period as all of Pennsylvania, where the incidence rate fell over the same period."
Radioactive Water Pollution to Blame?
The Marcellus shale beneath Pennsylvania was one of the first areas where fracking began. Only 44 fracking wells were drilled before 2007, while 2,864 were drilled in 2007-2010.
The cause of the excess mortality is not proven in the study, however, the authors point out that the fracking production process releases naturally occurring radioactive materials from shale strata which then contaminate groundwater.
These include radium, uranium, thorium and radon, an intensely radioactive gas which decays into radioactive 'daughters' with a half-life of under four days. And as the authors write, fracking "involves the explosive destruction of large volumes of underground gas and oil retaining rocks and the pumping down of large amounts of what is termed 'produced water' which initially contains various chemical and sand additives.
"This produced water and backflow returns to the surface with a high load of dissolved and suspended solids including naturally occurring radioactive elements ... The contaminated water has to be safely disposed of but this is often associated with violations of legal disposal constraints."
Baby Mortality Related to Exposure to Water Wells
In the five heavily-fracked counties in the northeast part of the state (Susquehanna, Bradford, Wyoming, Lycoming and Tioga), the number of deaths from 2003-2006 vs. 2007-2010 climbed from 36 to 60, a statistically significant rate increase of 66%.
The rate in the five counties in southwest Pennsylvania (Washington, Westmoreland, Greene, Butler and Fayette) rose 18%, from 157 to 178 deaths, though this increase was not statistically significant.
This divergence in relative risk between the heavily fracked NE and SW counties was initially perplexing, however, the authors noticed the higher dependence on private water wells (potentially contaminated with fracking fluids) for drinking water and other needs in the first region compared to the second.
In the NE group of counties, the number of water wells per birth ranged from 4.9 to 13.5, compared to 1.1 to 3 in the SW group of countries. Their chart of Relative Risk for early infant mortality after fracking (see image above right) plotted against 'exposure' defined as 'water wells per birth' on a county by county basis produced a straight-line graph - indicated a strong relation to increased mortality and exposure to groundwater.
They conclude: "The results, therefore, seem to support the suggestion that the vector for the effect is exposure to drinking water from private wells. This is a mechanistically plausible explanation. However, the findings do not prove such a suggestion. We may examine other possible explanations for possible health effects which have been advanced."
While radioactive pollution is carefully examined, the authors acknowledge alternatives including "the existence of chemical contaminants in the produced water" which they consider a "possible but unknown factor."
Serious Questions Raised Over Health Hazards of Fracking
"A major component of early infant mortality is congenital malformation, e.g., heart, neurological, and kidney defects. These are known to be caused by exposures to Radium and Uranium in drinking water", said Christopher Busby.
"Infant death rates were significantly high in highly-fracked counties in northeast Pennsylvania, those with the greatest density of private water wells, suggesting it is drinking water contamination driving the effect."
Joseph Mangano added: "These results raise serious questions about potential health hazards of fracking, especially since the fetus and infant are most susceptible to environmental pollutants. This is a public health issue which should be investigated wherever fracking is being carried out or proposed."
The result is expected to have significant insurance, investment, economic and downstream political implications in the US and other countries.