Recently, a study was published in Preventive Medicine Reports titled “Associations between proximity to gas production activity in counties and birth outcomes across the U.S.,” which looked at the connection between the closeness to gas production and newborn’s birth weights in this country. The study found that living near natural gas development (NGD), including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), has negative impacts on the health of infants, particularly in infants born to Black women.

Summer Hawkins, PhD, the senior author of the study, is an associate professor at Boston College in the School of Social Work. She received the American Lung Association’s Public Policy Research Award to study how tobacco and air pollution policies impact birth outcomes in the United States.

“I have been working with colleagues recently on environmental exposures in women and infants. We used birth certificate data quite a bit because it contains wonderful information about women and where they live. We have county-level information on every birth in the entire country,” said Dr. Hawkins.

Summer Hawkins

For the most recent study, Dr. Hawkins and her team used county-level microdata on 38.8 million births in 28 states between 2005 and 2018 and linked it with nine-month county-level averages of NGD production. The study found that a 10% increase in NGD production in a county was associated with a decrease in birth weight by 1.48 grams.

“I think it’s important that we don’t just look at overall effects, but we also looked at differences by race and ethnicity. We found that the effects were larger among infants born to Black women. Rather than a 1.48 gram decrease [overall], it was an over 10 gram decline for infants born to Black women,” said Dr. Hawkins.

These findings are particularly concerning as they highlight a disparity in the impacts of NGD on different communities. This research shows that the negative impacts of NGD are not evenly distributed, with minority communities bearing a disproportionate burden.

NGD has been linked to a range of health effects, including respiratory problems, headaches, and neurological disorders. The toxic chemicals and pollutants released during the fracking process can harm air and water quality and have been linked to cancer and other serious health issues. Methane gas also leaks out during gas extraction, processing and transport, and is a potent driver of climate change that further exacerbates many health harms. The results of this research will be crucial in informing policy decisions by showing the downstream effects of policies on the health of pregnant people and infants.

“Fracking and increasing energy demand in the US are on the forefront of everyone’s minds, particularly as energy prices are increasing. The hope is that this research will help people make these decisions more thoughtfully since there is now an accumulating body of evidence that these operations don’t just impact adult health, but infant health,” said Hawkins.

This research highlights the need for a nationwide transition to clean, renewable, non-combustion electricity that doesn’t pollute the air. It also shows the urgent need for stronger regulations and oversight of natural gas development to protect public health, particularly for communities that are already disproportionately impacted by pollution. Right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering new protections that would limit methane and toxic air emissions from the oil and gas industry. The American Lung Association urges you to add your name in support of strong standards to help protect health.

As the nation works to address the challenges of air pollution and climate change, the American Lung Association is committed to prioritizing the health and well-being of all Americans, and that means ensuring that communities near gas production sites are not exposed to harmful pollutants.

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