Are the dangers of fracking creeping into your nursery? A new study links the controversial drilling practice with low birth weight in babies. Here's what it means.
As if pregnant women needed another thing to worry about: A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh connects low birth weight with expectant mothers' proximity to fracking sites. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of drilling for oil and gas by injecting pressurized water, sand and chemicals into wells in the earth to force the fossil fuels out. The study found that mothers in Pennsylvania whose homes were closest to these wells were 34 percent more likely to have babies who were small for gestational age than those whose homes were farthest away.
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More study is needed
Bruce Pitt, Ph.D., co-author on the study and chair of the university's Graduate School of Public Health Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, notes that the findings don't prove fracking causes low birth weight, just that there is a correlation. "It is an important association that warrants further investigation," he tells FitPregnancy.com. "To draw firm conclusions, we need studies that thoroughly assess the exposure of a very large number of pregnant women to not just the gas wells, but other potential pollutants."
Environmentalists have long been concerned that fracking would have negative effects because of the potential to contaminate drinking water, as well as cause air pollution and even earthquakes. "Public health scientists are trying to determine if there are any health effects related to hydraulic fracturing, but much more study is needed before we have any conclusive answers," Pitt says. Although the Environmental Protection Agency just released a report that found no evidence of widespread impacts on drinking water, it did find some instances of it. According to the EPA, at least 25 states have fracking wells, including Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
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What can pregnant women do?
Pregnant women who live near fracking sites may be understandably concerned by the findings, but Pitt says the research shouldn't affect medical treatment at this point. "Our study should not be used to guide any decisions made by pregnant women living near gas wells," he says. "The best thing they can do is get good prenatal care and follow the advice of their obstetricians."
Dr. Siobhan Dolan, an OB at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., and a medical advisor to the March of Dimes, says it's best to focus on proven ways to prevent low birth weight. "If you live in one of these areas you might not have the capacity to move or change your water or your environment, but you can quit smoking," she tells FitPregnancy.com. "I suggest women do things that are within their control, like quitting smoking, making sure you take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid, getting to a healthy weight [before pregnancy], making sure your vaccinations are up to date, making sure your weight gain is on target, controlling your medical conditions, making sure that any infections you have are treated. These are all things that women can control, and they do improve birth outcomes."
In the midst of the trend to go organic in an effort to avoid toxins in everything from our food to our beauty products, this study raises red flags, but the risks of fracking to pregnant women and their unborn babies just aren't yet fully understood. "The concerns are real, and studies are needed to better identify exactly what is causing what in whom, and allow women then to address it if they find themselves in a high-risk area," Dr. Dolan says. For now, "even though this may be what raises your concern, there are other things everyone can do to improve your birth outcome in many different ways."
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