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Living Near Fracked Wells Increases Adverse Birth Outcome Risk, Study Suggests

A growing body of research is suggesting fracking isn’t safe. BC disagrees.

Michelle Gamage 20 Apr

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Living within 10 kilometres of a fracked gas well during pregnancy or just before you get pregnant could cause adverse birth outcomes like babies born preterm or underweight, according to a new study.

The study, published recently in JAMA Pediatrics, followed 26,193 individuals in rural Alberta from Jan. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2018. It tracked 34,873 pregnancies, looking at how close expectant parents lived to fracking wells and if there were any complications.

The research suggests that the more fracking wells within 10 kilometres, the higher your risk of adverse birth outcomes, said Amy Metcalfe, the report’s senior author. Metcalfe is an associate professor with the department of obstetrics and gynecology, medicine and community health sciences at the University of Calgary.

“The key takeaway is really about living near high-density fracking operations,” she said. Living near one well created “relatively small” risks, while living near 100 creates a “clear dose response” — in other words, a clear impact.

This is the second Canadian study ever done (the first was in B.C. in 2020) that looks at fracking and childbirth, and Metcalfe said it’s important for more research to be done to better understand what’s going on and to make sure parents don’t blame themselves for adverse birth outcomes, which have many causes.

It’s a complicated study to do, she added. Her large team had experts in obstetric health and child development, engineering, geology, geography, economics and law. The team could only look back to 2013 because before then Alberta didn’t require fracking companies to disclose if a well was operational, she said.

Metcalfe said Alberta was a good province to study because of the large number of natural gas wells, which allowed the team to measure how proximity and the number of wells impacted babies. The large sample size also helped rule out other factors, like socioeconomic status or if people had access to health-care services.

While it’s only the second Canadian study in this area, it’s part of a growing body of research that suggests fracking impacts human health, either because of groundwater pollution or air pollution, said Dr. Margaret McGregor, a clinical associate professor at the department of family practice at the University of British Columbia. McGregor is also a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, an organization that advocates for environmental action to mitigate the health effects of climate change.

Fracking blasts large volumes of pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep into concrete-like shale formations one to two kilometres in the Earth. That force shatters rock underground with a network of fractures so that methane, oil or natural gas liquids can be released. There are thousands of fracked wells across northeastern B.C.

In a paper that McGregor recently submitted for publication, she reviewed 38 North American studies where the “majority found adverse associations with exposure to fracking.” One study even found being around oil and gas developments meant you were more likely to die.

She says people’s health could be impacted by the “slurry of chemicals” used in fracking to extract gas from underground.

One U.S. study found that a quarter of the chemicals used in fracking can cause cancer and three-quarters of the chemicals used negatively affected the skin, eyes, other sensory organs and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

Canadian companies do not have to disclose all of the chemicals they use in fracking because the exact cocktail is considered proprietary.

One major difference between Canadian and American fracking sites is that in the U.S. you own any oil and gas deposits found underneath your property. In Canada these deposits usually belong to the Crown. That means a rural community doesn’t have the same say in what wells get built and where, and a community likely won’t get any richer if a new well is drilled because any royalty revenue goes to the government.

So why haven’t more studies been done in Canada?

McGregor says environmental racism and isolation have allowed for these health impacts to be “out of sight, out of mind” because they often impact Indigenous and rural communities.

The provincial government says fracking is safe.

When The Tyee asked if the provincial government was tracking potential health impacts caused by fracking, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation pointed to a 2019 report that said B.C.’s regulations were “robust,” according to an emailed statement from the ministry. The report also made recommendations for improvement, and the ministry said it “responded quickly” to hit short-term goals and created an action plan to hit longer-term goals.

The ministry also said it has air quality monitoring stations set up across northeast B.C., where most of the fracking industry is, that measure toxic and combustible gases, volatile organic compounds and wind speed and direction.

B.C.’s Ministry of Health also led a 2012 assessment that looked at fracking human health risks. All of the recommendations from the assessment have been “fully or substantially implemented” by the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the Energy Ministry said.

Metcalfe’s recent study does not identify the method by which pollutants are impacting people, but notes many people in rural Alberta drink groundwater.

McGregor said people might drink polluted water that was contaminated by a spill, or could breathe in polluted air that aerosolizes off tailings ponds.

How people are being contaminated isn’t exactly known — we just know it’s impacting them, she said.

McGregor said adults can be impacted by asthma or heart inflammation when they live near fracking sites.

Metcalfe said preterm births mean a baby is born at least one month early. This scenario is bad for the baby and parent, she said. The baby is more likely to have learning and long-term physical disabilities and the parent has a “substantially” higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

Underweight babies can be small and healthy, or they can have not grown to their “full potential” while in the womb, Metcalfe said. This can lead to longer-term health consequences.

The Tyee also contacted some of B.C.’s largest fracking companies, including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Tourmaline Oil, Shell Canada, Petronas, Ovintiv Inc. (previously known as Encana) and ARC Resources Ltd. for comment but did not hear back by press time.

Metcalfe said she’d like to see more research done in this field, but warns that industry-funded research could end up being biased, as has happened with research funded by tobacco and sugar companies.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Environment

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