Fracking Chemicals: Respiratory Health Risks to Infants and Children

by Ellen Webb

Two years ago, a midwife from Vernal, Utah, made headlines by suggesting a link between infant mortality and air pollution from fracking. After serving as the town’s midwife for 19 years, she’d delivered a baby that died in stillbirth. This was no isolated incident: the infant mortality rate in Vernal had surged to six times at the national average in 2013. Young suspected it was no coincidence that this dramatic increase in stillborn death coincided with extraordinary pollution levels in the Uinta Basin near Vernal, where increasingly many oil companies were extracting natural gas through fracturing, or fracking, shale rock formations.

Having issued an article about the developmental and reproductive health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) operations on pregnant women and children, today, CEH and fellow health professionals and advocates are releasing a paper focusing on a different UOG effect: on infant and children’s respiratory health. ‘Unconventional’ refers to the fracking part of the UOG ‘lifecycle’, from well construction to extraction, operations, transportation, and distribution. Every stage of the lifecycle can lead to air and water pollution, and certain populations—infants and children—are vulnerable to this pollution in many ways.

Just as the Uita infants were susceptible to stillborn death and birth defects from prenatal exposure to pollution, developing children are uniquely susceptible to respiratory health problems because their physiology (rapid metabolism, reduced ability to detoxify certain compounds) and behavior (eating, drinking, and breathing more per unit of body weight) makes them more likely to be exposed to pollutants than adults. This comprehensive literature review synthesizes a growing number of epidemiological studies indicating that UOG operations are associated with adverse respiratory health effects in infants and children. It presents disturbing evidence that at least 5 pollutant groups used and produced throughout the UOG lifecycle—benzene, formaldehyde, ozone, particulate matter, and silica dust—  have well-known respiratory health effects for infants and children, including asthma, airway inflammation, and immune infection.

As unregulated shale gas production in the U.S. was projected to increase by 113% between 2011 and 2040, research on the multimodal health impacts of UOG operations are as urgent as ever. CEH’s 2014 article would have supported Donna Young’s suspicion that fracking-induced air pollution impairs fetal health, citing studies that found an association between maternal proximity to natural gas wells and birth defects. Today’s literature review discusses similar studies’ findings on respiratory health effects and risks. The authors suggest that frequent or chronic exposure to UOG pollutants may increase risk of irreversible pulmonary damage and chronic respiratory diseases, and recommend emission reduction standards to ensure the respiratory health of infants and children. The public health cost (emergency room visits, hospital treatments) and socioeconomic burden (school absenteeism) of respiratory health symptoms like asthma is also discussed.

Although Vernal’s local health department took on Young’s request to investigate the increase in infant mortality rates, they failed to address the question that she and other health experts deemed critical: did fracking have anything to do with it? Thanks to fracking, air pollution levels in Vernal had grown so severe as to match those of major cities like New York, LA, and Mexico City. During the winter in which the Uintah mothers whose babies died had been pregnant, smog levels in Vernal was so bad that residents couldn’t see the Uinta Mountains to the north. Not having taken into account these environmental factors, however, Vernal’s health department ultimately attributed the cause of the spike in infant mortality rates to the health problems of the mothers, such as smoking, diabetes and neglect.

By releasing studies on the variegated health effects of UOG operations—from reproductive and developmental, to now, respiratory— CEH adds to growing scientific concern that fracking poses unacceptable and unignorable health risks to nearby communities.