A new study published last week in the Journal of Environmental Protection provides new evidence that the gas extraction process of hydrofracturing, known as fracking, is harming the health of people who live near these wells. This study found that counties in Pennsylvania with higher numbers of fracking wells had higher rates of infant mortality.

The authors compared early infant mortality for the years 2007-2010 in ten Pennsylvania counties that were heavily fracked to the rates for the rest of the Pennsylvania (excluding the 10 heavily fracked counties) for the years 2003-2006 which was considered a pre-fracking period. The results showed a statistically significant 29% excess risk for newborn infants of dying during the first 28 days of life if they were born in the ten heavily fracked counties during the 4-year period following development of fracking gas wells in these counties. The early infant mortality rate for the rest of the state decreased by 2% during this same time-period. The association with infant mortality was even greater in the five northeast Pennsylvania counties of Susquehanna, Bradford, Wyoming, Lycoming and Tioga where the early infant mortality rate increased by 67%. These counties had the greatest number of fracking wells. The early infant mortality rate was increased by 18% in the five southwest Pennsylvania counties of Washington, Westmoreland, Greene, Butler and Fayette where fracking also occurred but at lesser rates.

According to the report, about 50 more babies died in these 10 counties than would have been predicted if the rate had been the same over the study period as it was for all of Pennsylvania, where the incidence rate fell over the same period. Although the study could not prove what might be causing these increases in infant mortality, the authors did observe an association between early infant mortality and the number of drinking water violations in private wells in the five northeast PA counties. This finding led the authors to state that the increase risk of early infant mortality might be related to exposure to drinking water which may be contaminated. They further noted that this contamination might be due to the release of naturally occurring radioactive material, including radium, thorium and uranium caused by underground explosions set off by the natural gas extraction process.

In closing, the authors described early infant mortality as “a flag for genetic damage, and thus represents a “miner’s canary” for other ill health effects in children and adults, particularly cancer, though there is a temporal lag in cancer between exposure and clinical expression.” While this study has its limitations, it still raises serious questions about the safety of the natural gas extraction process called fracking. To read the full study, see <http://file.scirp.org/pdf/JEP_2017042413181160.pdf>.