Pregnant Women and Fracking: A Case for Special Concern

The shale gas industry releases fine particles, toxic fumes, and hazardous chemicals into the environment not just during fracking but at every stage of production. These pollutants can travel for miles. If you live near shale gas development activities, you may find these pollutants in the water, soil, and air around you. If you are exposed to them in large enough doses, they can affect your health.

One of EHP’s previous blog posts outlined the health effects you may experience if you live near shale gas development. While these pollutants can be harmful for the general population, those who are more vulnerable to the effects of emissions are even more at risk. Pregnant women should be especially careful about being exposed to pollution from shale gas development.

How Your Baby Could be Affected

The closer an expecting mother lives to shale gas facilities, and the more she is exposed to the harmful substances shale gas development generates, the more likely it is that her baby may be born underweight or with birth defects. According to a 2017 study titled “Hydraulic fracturing and infant health: New evidence from Pennsylvania,” if a mother lives within a kilometer (0.6 miles) from a shale gas well, she’s 25% more likely to deliver a baby under 5.8 pounds at birth than if she lives farther away. Researchers have found that the compounds used in shale gas development are also linked to infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, impaired fetal growth, preterm birth, and premature or delayed sexual development in the baby going forward.

Being exposed to fracking substances before birth can also affect a child’s brain development. A 2017 study from Reviews on Environmental Health found that air and water contamination from fracking have been linked to significant problems in the development of neurological systems in infants, children, and young adults. Because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, young children are at higher risk for neurological diseases when they are frequently exposed to pollutants from fracking. According to the study, children exposed to these emissions before birth have also seen lower developmental and IQ scores.

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Fracking and Maternal Mental Health

In addition to their babies’ health being at risk, expecting mothers themselves may also be negatively affected by fracking. A 2019 study from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health identified a link between proximity to fracking activities and mental health issues during pregnancy. Women living closer to a greater number of fracking wells had a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.

According to Joan A. Casey, lead author of the above study, other research has found that women who have anxiety or depression during pregnancy are at an elevated risk of postpartum depression as well. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that developmental issues in babies whose mothers had postpartum depression can include delays in language development, behavioral and social issues, problems with mother-child bonding, shorter height, and a higher risk of obesity. The child may also feel more agitated or cry more often.

Protecting Yourself and Your Baby

If you are pregnant, it’s extremely important that you pay close attention to air quality advisories and limit your outdoor exposure on moderate and unhealthy air quality days. This is especially important if you live or work within a mile of a shale gas facility.

If you have well water, the water should be monitored and tested. If you suspect it is contaminated, it should not be ingested or used on the skin.

For other ways to better protect yourself and your unborn/newborn baby, you can:

  • Remove avoidable indoor air pollutants like smoke from your house
  • Join the Health Effects Registry and get your health symptoms on record
  • Have an EHP public health nurse visit you, or come in for a health assessment
  • Request air monitoring from EHP that tracks pollutants inside and outside your home
  • Contact your health care provider about any symptoms you or your family members may be experiencing
  • Keep a journal of any health effects you experience throughout your pregnancy and afterwards
  • Purchase a HEPA-certified air filter for your home

Your health – and the health of your baby – is precious. Having the right information can go a long way toward protecting you and your family members from the harmful effects of shale gas development. For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at 724-260-5504 or by email at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org, or visit EHP’s website.

The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.

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