Mothers living near active oil and gas sites in Colorado are 40 to 70% are more likely to give birth to babies with congenital heart defects (CHDs) compared to their counterparts in areas with less intensive fossil development, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health conclude in a study published last week in the journal Environment International.
The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus notes in a release that 17 million Americans and 6% of Coloradans live within a mile of an active oil and gas site.
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“We observed more children were being born with a congenital heart defect in areas with the highest intensity of oil and gas well activity,” said senior author Lisa McKenzie.
“We observed positive associations between odds of a birth with a CHD and maternal exposure to oil and gas activities…in the second gestational month,” the study stated.
In the study of 3,324 Colorado infants born between 2005 and 2011, the research team “estimated the monthly intensity oil and gas well activity at mother’s residence from three months prior to conception through the second month of pregnancy. This intensity measure accounted for the phase of development (drilling, well completion, or production), size of well sites, and production volumes,” Anschutz explains.
“They found mothers living in areas with the most intense levels of oil and gas well activity were about 40-70% more likely to have children with CHDs. This is the most common birth defect in the country and a leading cause of death among infants with birth defects. Infants with a CHD are less likely to thrive, more likely to have developmental problems, and more vulnerable to brain injury.”
Past studies of 124,842 births in rural Colorado and 476,000 in Oklahoma had found different degrees of linkage between fossil development and CHDs. “Those studies had several limitations, including not being able to distinguish between well development and production phases at sites, and they did not confirm specific CHDs by reviewing medical records,” Anschutz notes.
But this time, “researchers were able to confirm where the mothers lived in the first months of their pregnancy, estimate the intensity of well activity, and account for the presence of other air pollution sources. The CHDs were also confirmed by a medical record review and did not include those with a known genetic origin.”
The study also found a higher differential for CHD in rural areas compared to cities, a result McKenzie attributed to the higher incidence of other sources of air pollution in urban settings.
She stressed that the research did not establish a causal link between oil and gas development and congenital heart disease.
“This study provides further evidence of a positive association between maternal proximity to oil and gas well site activities and several types of CHDs,” she said. “Taken together, our results and expanding development of oil and gas well sites underscore the importance of continuing to conduct comprehensive and rigorous research on health consequences of early life exposure to oil and gas activities.”