Study looked at 3 million birth certificates and oil, gas info - Low birth weights found in rural areas near active wells

By Emily C. Dooley, BLOOMBERG

June 3, 2020

Pregnant women living in rural areas close to active oil and gas wells are at higher risk o f having babies that weigh less than those born in urban areas, a study of millions of birth records in California shows.

The University of California, Berkeley, study published Wednesday analyzed 3 million birth certificates over a decade and compared them to oil and gas barrel production during the course of the pregnancies.

The research is one of the largest studies of its kind in California, and the first in the state to look at perinatal health and oil and gas extraction, said Rachel Morello- Frosch, the senior author of the study and a professor at Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

“We worry about things like low birth weight because that can increase the risk of the child having a lot of other developmental problems later on in life,” Morello- Frosch said. “Other studies have also linked low birth weight to other health problems well into adulthood.”
    
The study was funded by the California Air Resources Board and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Agency spokeswoman Melanie Turner said the study was part of ongoing research the Air Board is doing related to oil and gas operations and public health. The data is needed to develop “science-based” regulations, she said in an email.

The research, which took 2 1/2 years, looked at birth data of people living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil and gas well in rural and urban areas near active and inactive sites.

It found that pregnant women living in rural areas within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest-producing wells were 40% more likely to have low birth weight babies and 20% more likely to have babies small for their gestational ages than people living farther away or near inactive sites.

Western States Petroleum Association declined to comment on the study until its experts had more time to look at the research.

Other Studies

Studies of hydraulic fracturing sites in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Texas have also noted low birth weights, preterm births, and other birth outcomes tied to the sites.

The American Petroleum Institute has questioned those studies’ conclusions. Specifically, the industry group has questioned whether study authors took into account other factors, such as parental health, to explain the low birth weight findings.

This study corrected for demographic factors, including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, maternal education, and other neighborhood factors.

“This is building on an overwhelming body of evidence,” said Liza Tucker, Consumer Watchdog’s consumer advocate. “It just corroborates what we already knew.”
Consumer Watchdog has been pushing the state to set minimum well setbacks of 2,500 feet.

California’s infrastructure tends to be older than that in other states. California also has many inactive wells, and extractors use fracking as well as steam and water injection to get to supplies, said Kathy Tran, a UC Berkeley graduate student who also worked on the study.

It’s unclear what could be causing the discrepancy between urban and rural health near well sites, but it could be the result of air pollution, groundwater contamination, increased traffic, and other factors related to the well sites, Morello- Frosch said.

“Obviously, things like wind direction and water movement and other environmental conditions factor into personal exposure, as well,” Tran said in a news release. “The more in-depth exposure assessment we can get, the more we can really understand why we are seeing the effects that we see.”

California’s oil and gas industry dates back more than 100 years and production has declined over the last 30 years. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has also placed a new emphasis on industry oversight since he took office in 2019.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division was renamed last year, and the mission changed from a focus on oil and gas development to protecting public health and the environment.
A bill working through the state legislature could require well setbacks near homes, schools, and other areas.

(Updates with additional comment throughout.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at [email protected]; Chuck McCutcheon at [email protected]