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Study Finds Lower Birthweight in Texas Babies Born Near Oil and Gas Wells

Close proximity to oil and gas drilling is linked to slightly lower birthweights in newborns, according to new research.

(CN) — Babies born within 2 miles of oil and gas drilling facilities in Texas, the leading state in natural gas production, have slightly lower birthweights than those born without drilling in their area, according to a new study from researchers at Oregon State University.

To measure the impact of environmental pollution and contaminants on developing fetuses, researchers examined birthweight and location data for more than 2.5 million infants in Texas who were born between 1996 and 2009 to mothers living within 6 miles of a current or future oil or gas drilling site. Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Most studies to date focus exclusively on unconventional natural gas drilling, or fracking. That particular process is a small subset of the oil and natural gas industry,” Mary Willis, a researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences said in a press release. “We find it doesn’t matter – where people are extracting oil and gas resources, we’re still seeing an impact on infant health.”

She added, “A lot of policy is exclusively focusing on fracking, but our study shows that’s a really limited view of how this industry may impact local populations."

Previous studies show that 4.5 million Texans live within a mile of at least one oil or gas drilling site, but very little research has focused on the health impacts of living near an oil or gas drilling site in the Lone Star State in particular, the researchers said.

For an unborn fetus, the potential harmful exposures related to drilling including air pollution, water contamination from hydraulic fracturing chemicals, noise pollution from industrial activity and light pollution from new drilling facilities.

Willis and the research team found that living within 2 miles of an active drilling site is associated with a birthweight of 7 to 9 grams, or about a third of an ounce, less than the birthweight of babies born without drilling in their area.

Babies weighing less than 2,500 grams, or 5 pounds, 3 ounces, are considered to have a low birthweight, which puts them at greater risk for health problems such as breathing issues or infections.

Willis said that 7 to 9 grams is a relatively small impact, but with so many pregnant women living near oil and gas wells the impact on the overall population could be significant.

However, “this magnitude of effect is smaller than similar papers because we take into account the economic benefits of drilling,” Willis said in the press release. She pointed to the economic boon from new drilling sites in rural areas, which includes the arrival of new jobs, higher wages, and better access to better health care, as a counterbalance to effects from environmental pollution.

The researchers also suggest there might also be more early pregnancy losses and difficulty conceiving among families who live in areas with drilling.

Willis said one purpose of the study was to give policymakers a standard safe distance for drilling, even though health impacts don’t completely disappear after roughly 2 miles.

“In the U.S., 17.6 million Americans live within 1.6 kilometers [just under a mile] of at least one active oil or gas drilling site,” she said. “That’s a lot of people residing really close to fossil fuel extraction.”

Willis is also involved in studies that examine the potential impact of oil and gas drilling on the rate of birth defects, preterm birth and maternal health, as well as what specific exposures could lead to potential health effects.

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