Fracking linked to birth defects? Colorado study fuels debate

A new study on the health risks of fracking has found an increased risk of birth defects -- including a startling 30 percent hike in the risk of congenital heart defects -- among families living near oil and gas wells in rural Colorado. The report has been embraced by environmental groups battling the state's burgeoning drilling activity and just as swiftly denounced as deeply flawed by industry advocates, with state health officials -- who supported the study and supplied much of the raw data -- calling it "not conclusive."

Prepared by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University, the study analyzed data concerning 124,842 births in rural Colorado over a fourteen-year period, starting in 1996. The focus was on preterm births, low birth weight, and the most common forms of birth defects, including oral clefts, heart defects, and neural tube defects -- all of which have been associated with exposure to chemicals such as benzene and toluene, commonly used in oil and gas development. The study found that infants living within a ten-mile radius of active wells had a significantly greater incidence of some defects than those who had no wells in their vicinity.

Colorado has close to 50,000 active wells, many of them in heavy concentration in a few rural counties. The vast majority of those wells involve the use of hydraulic fracturing, a process of pumping water mixed with toxic chemicals into deep shale formations to extract oil and gas. While many anti-fracking campaigns have revolved around fears that fracking fluids will contaminate groundwater supplies -- a fear that fracking proponents, including Governor John Hickenlooper, characterize as unfounded -- the process has resulted in numerous surface spills and concerns about air pollutants.

Yet the data analysis also uncovered some anomalies. For example, contrary to other research results, the authors found the number of premature births actually declined in closer proximity to the wells, and no correlation at all between well exposure and cleft palates. That's prompted a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to brush off the study as having "many deficiencies," while the communications director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told Aljazeera America that the study, while interesting, is "not conclusive."

The EPA is working on a massive study of fracking that's scheduled for release later this year. And the Colorado study's authors conclude that additional studies on the environmental impacts of the industry can't come soon enough.

"The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates that 26 percent of the more than 47,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado are located within 150 to 1,000 feet of a home or other type of building intended for human occupancy," they note. "Taken together, our results and current trends in NGD [natural gas development] underscore the importance of conducting more comprehensive and rigorous research on the potential health effects."

More from our Environment archive circa December 2013: "Jared Polis to fracking industry: 'You can't sue the whole state.'"