Birth Defect Study, Panned By State, Roils “Fracking” Debate

Fracking fluid.

Fracking fluid.

A troubling story published last night from Renee Lewis of Al Jazeera America:

Living near hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — sites may increase the risk of some birth defects by as much as 30 percent, a new study suggests. In the U.S., more than 15 million people now live within a mile of a well.

The use of fracking, a gas-extraction process through which sand, water and chemicals are pumped into the ground to release trapped fuel deposits, has increased significantly in the U.S. over the past decade. Five years ago, the U.S. produced 5 million barrels of oil per day; today, it's 7.4 million, thanks largely to fracking…

The report by the Colorado School of Public Health, released Jan. 28, gathered evidence from heavily drilled rural Colorado, which has among the highest densities of oil and gas wells in the U.S.

“What we found was that the risk of congenital heart defects (CHD) increased with greater density of gas wells — with mothers living in the highest-density areas at greatest risk,” Lisa McKenzie, a research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the study, told Al Jazeera.

Here's a link to the full study from the Colorado School of Public Health, titled "Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado."

The first thing we're obliged to note here is the swift and negative response to this study from officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. We found Dr. Larry Wolk of CDPHE's official response, among other places, on a pro-fracking Pennsylvania website.

Overall, we feel this study highlights interesting areas for further research and investigation, but is not conclusive in itself. We agree there is public concern about the effects of oil and gas operations on health, including birth outcomes. While this paper was an attempt to address those concerns, we disagree with many of the specific associations with the occurrence of birth defects noted within the study. Therefore, a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.

As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect. Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.

While the study was based on data provided by CDPHE, the authors note on page 1, the department specifically disclaimed responsibility for any analyses, interpretations or conclusions drawn by the authors.

And of course, in the Al Jazeera story, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association gives the study little weight.

Doug Flanders, a spokesman for the COGA, told Al Jazeera in an email that the new study contained “many deficiencies.”

“For example, if you look beyond the author’s narrative and study the actual data and tables she used — you will see that in half the cases there was a decreased risk of pre-term birth the closer mothers lived near (wells), which shows the study’s problems,” Flanders said, referring to the increased likelihood McKenzie and the other scientists found between proximity to wells and having a baby at full term…

Reading the enumerated objections to this study from Dr. Wolk's statement, and this response from the infamous Doug Flanders of COGA, the points where they say more clarity or further background is needed are certainly worth further investigation–such as other factors that may have contributed to the higher incidence of birth defects found in the study. But from our read, those unanswered questions don't make the higher incidence of birth defects near fracking sites in Colorado clearly indicated by this study less troubling. If readers should not "rush to judgment," as Dr. Wolk dismissively suggests, then at the very least this study should increase the urgency to verify or refute its conclusions with hard data.

In Colorado, as readers know, a major battle is shaping up this election year over the conflict between public health in residential areas threatened by fracking, and the constitutional "split estate" rights of energy companies to extract resources from under those same communities. A statewide ballot measure drive is underway to allow local communities to stop harmful industrial activity within their boundaries, as a number of Front Range cities have very controversially done with hydraulic fracture drilling. COGA and the state have sued to reverse votes by local communities to suspend or ban fracking.

Here's a study that could give many more Colorado moms a reason to join them. If the Hickenlooper administration and the energy industry want to convince them otherwise, they'll have to do better than chipping around the margins of a frightening bottom line.

36 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Andrew Carnegie says:

    Al Jazeera, Really?

    • ModeratusModeratus says:

      Beat me to it! Damn. 🙂

      Pols, Al Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, a Persian Gulf absolute monarchy. Qatar has the third largest reserves of natural gas in the world. Your assistance in spreading their marketing materials is much appreciated I'm sure.


    • Sadly, I've seen a lot of reportage coming out of Al Jazeera that has more detail and more analysis than the equivalent story (if it exists at all) coming out of our major domestic news outlets.

      If first impressions are important, then Al Jazeera is working toward being a new BBC, not a new Farce News.

  2. gumshoe says:

    Did you even care to read the article, Moderatus? Glad to see paid republican hacks are working today (with the capitol closed and all). 

    The Colorado School of Public Health did the study. 

    Why do you hate Colorado and what do you have against the Colorado School of Public Heath? 


    • Andrew Carnegie says:

      So here we go.

      There are gas wells that are drilled using drilling mud that contains various chemicals that have been around for years.  A study concludes that there may or may not be an increase of some kind of birth defects in children in proximity of gas wells.

      Many encased gas wells have undergone a technique whereby materials are injected in the bottom of the well to fracture rock formations to free up gas and increase production.

      The study does not distinquish between wells which have undergone fracking and those that have not.

      The Chief Medical Officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found the study not to be conclusive.

      CoiloradoPols concludes it relates to Fracking which it did not study.  I wonder why?

    • Andrew Carnegie says:

      I am paid.

      I may be a hack depending on your point of view.

      But to date I have never been paid a penny by the Republican party.

      If you know how to set me up so that I can get paid for this, let me know.smiley


  3. DaftPunkDaftPunk says:

    The objections cited seem more like distractions than actual arguments.

    The CDPHE doc is saying something along the lines of the AGW deniers who claim that climate change can’t be supported unless you can specifically show how a particular weather event was caused. Birth defects are multifactorial, and absent an obvious potent teratogen like Thalidomide, it’s nearly impossible to say that absent this exposure that defect would not have occurred. Public health looks at aggregate numbers and increased risks, and for a public health doc to poo-poo such an association seems irresponsible.

    As for the industry shill’s criticism, that a different study showed different associations in a secondary outcome is not a denial of these results, but a reason to look further into how the study groups differed, i.e. different fracking fluids, etc.

    There is no substantial critique of the study’s data or analysis from either of these defenders.

  4. ardy3ardy3 says:

    Oh good lord, it's amazing how quick people are to try to dismiss inconvenient findings. Any decent first year graduate student can identify potential shortcomings of any published scientific research paper. There is always some factor that might have been overlooked. It's especially easy when the authors of the study, being good scientists, explicitly enumerate these potential shortcomings in three paragraphs near the end of the paper that begin with "This study has several limitations …" (Really, read the paper, pages 14-15 of the 16 pages of text, are a frank acknowledgement of potential shortcomings of this study. Recognize any similarities in what these scientists wrote and what those who are objecting have said? Eerie, isn't it?)

    Our fearless shills on COPols, as well as Mr. Flanders and Dr. Wolk, might have just quoted verbatim from the actual study in their breathless attempts to cast doubt on the findings. (By the way, the actual study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives. The fact that Al Jazeera and the GJ Daily Sentinel have covered it is irrelevant.)

    The way real science is done, before one can justify a study to look at potential mechanisms, it is critical to first identify whether there is a pattern that needs explaining. This study by McKenzie et al. has identified that there is, indeed, a pattern: frequencies of some birth defects vary depending on proximity to wells. Cool. This is something worth knowing. Now it is worth looking for funding to do a follow-up study to evaluate some candidate mechanisms for this pattern. Perhaps the pattern will fall apart upon closer scrutiny. Cool. This is worth learning about – it's equally worthy of study to learn whether this is, or is not, something of concern here.

    This is the way science is done – we learn about the real world in incremental bits, not all at once. Real science acknowledges limitations and quantifies the likelihood that the conclusions are wrong. It's the shills, and stink tanks, who are trying to convince you to do something contrary to your best interests that speak in absolutes and require "proofs."

    The follow-up question that CDPHE, and all regulatory agencies, as well as industry proponents, should be asked is "why hadn't you done/funded this study already?" It's not like drilling for oil and gas just started yesterday. As industry proponents frequently remind us, they've been fracking for several decades. Why did it take until 2014 before someone in Colorado (or Texas, or Oklahoma, or ….) put a couple datasets together to see what came of the analysis? What's up with that?

    • ClubTwitty says:

      what ardy said

    • Republican 36 says:

      I think Andrew Carnegie and others who have critisized the CDPH study released yesterday have a point and we should be very careful before accepting its conclusions.

      The study is a statistical analysis of mothers who live within ten miles of an oil or gas well. The study does not indicate whether the wells are active or closed down. A much more valuable analysis would have looked at whether or not the rate of birth defects was different for those living close to an active well as opposed to a closed well. At this time we don't know.

      If you look closely, the study supports the conclusion that the risk of premature birth decreases the closer the mothers live to a well. That seems to undermine the implication that the closer one lives to a well the more birth defects occur.

      The study also doesn't consider other environmentally important facts like where did the mother live during the early stages of pregnancy and what other chemical agents was she exposed to, including other air and water pollutants, cigarette smoke, alcoholic products; plus the paternal and maternal behavior during pregnancy that necessarily introduces the pregnancy to other environmental agents.

      Another comparison that I think the authors could have accomplished is the statitical change, if any, as the oil and gas regulation eveolved in Colorado. The study covers the years 1996 through 2009 and I'm certain the environmental regulation of the industry changed and evolved over that period of time. In other words, as envieonmental regulation tightened did the number of birth defects decline. 

      I don't have the answers to the questioned posed above but I think we should not read very much into the study. A lot more research needs to be done before we reach any conclusions.

      • ardy3ardy3 says:

        All of these limitations were addressed by the researchers.Furthermore, the study does consider whether the mother smoked, drank alcohol, her level of education, elevation of the home, etc, when there were enough samples to allow for this (see Table 1). They also scrutinized their results for any time-series change and observed that incidences of some defects declined after 1998 following the introduction of folic acid. Note also that they only looked at birth defects in livebirths and only those that were identified within the first three years of birth, thus there is a real chance that they undercounted the numbers of birth defects.

        Note that in some of these cases (like not knowing whether a well was producing, shut in, or being drilled) would decrease the likelihood of being able to find a difference. The fact that they found differences without being able to hold constant an uncountable number of potential confounding variables is something of concern.

        The authors do not extrapolate beyond their data and scream that anyone who lives near a well must move immediately. That is the job of advocates, and I'm sure they will do just fine at this 😉 These scientists just made some very sober and tentative conclusions on what they found.

        And of course more research needs to be done. The authors make some explicit suggestions on what would be good next steps.

      • DaftPunkDaftPunk says:

        Like the COGA shill, you make the mistake of thinking that reduced incidence of pre-term labor somehow shows that well exposure is good and diminishes the power of the increased incidence of birth defects.  

        Organogenesis and labor are different biological phenomena with different chemical triggers and different susceptibilities to different external signals.  Gestation will be lengthened if your fetus is anencephalic (has no brain.)  That doesn't make it a good thing.

      • mamajama55mamajama55 says:

        Birth defects from environmental factors take time to emerge, and public health officials are reluctant to diagnose prematurely. It's a crapshoot whether a scientist will investigate, and whether communities will care enough to disrupt the few jobs in the area.

        Personal example 1: In Colorado, there may be increased risk of birth defects around mining tailings in mountain towns. My midwives reported an unusual number of babies born with fused skull plate (craniosynostosis) in the Idaho Springs area. This was 25 years ago.  No one has studied this to see if it is a real public health risk, although there are superfund cleanup sites at

        I've tried researching it, and the only study I could find discounted the environmental factors, and blamed it on the mother smoking, etc.  Still no explanation of why that would be happening more in little towns where gold tailings leak into the water. The anecdotal reports from observers go nowhere without an academic taking a personal interest.

        Personal example 2: In Pueblo, we will soon have a new Superfund site, cleaning up slag heaps and soil contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury left over from generations of steel production. Kids still play on these slag piles. What it took to get some action going were a CSU-P professor, Dr. Diawara, and concerned neighbors complaining about discharges and wondering about the incidence of health conditions in kids. This had been going on since 2006. I'll be writing a diary on it.

        It's taken that long to get the scientific data studies done, and to get the political will of Pueblans to accept the necessity of a cleanup operation. In the meantime, generations of kids who played on the slag piles have symptoms of lead poisoning, and adults also have increased health problems. So there is a case to be made for immediate remediation, even if all of the data isn't in yet.

  5. Gray in Mountains says:

    if fracking is safe why does it need an exemption fro Safe Water Drinking Act?

  6. Sunmusing says:

    Follow the money….there are many money trails here…the point is…fracking has been done for years without any studies…without a list of chemicals these people are pumping into our environment…and now, when it seems the effects of these chemicals are effecting our children, and there is some evidence to link fracking with children's problems, the oil and gas money is flowing as much as the gas…these oil people have proven to be liars, and willing to let our water resources be poisoned by their grift and corruption…this is all so obvious even to us low IQ types….

  7. ClubTwitty says:

    It is standard operating procedure for industry that is harming or killing us to first deny, then confuse, then claim more study is needed, before being kicked dragging and screaming to a new reality to which they soon adjust and continue making profits.  

  8. ElliotFladenElliotFladen says:

    Assuming study is true, issue becomes about finding ways to mitigate risks

    • ClubTwitty says:

      For the most part* industry doesn't care if the study is true, or rather their public strategy around the study depends not on its veracity, where it was published, who did it, or any of that.  The 'external affairs' strategy around this and every 'negative' report or study is the same: discredit, cast doubt, and if things are getting obvious enough…like with rapidly declining air quality and nonattainment across the gas patch and beyond: call for years-long studies, even kicking in a few hundred grand to the effort.  You should have thousands of more wells in and fracked by then.   

      Ask any one of these spox directly, when they ‘discredit’ this latest study… “So it is your company’s (or client’s) specific contention that pregnant women are safe living near fracking sites, oil and gas operations, compressor or stripper plants?” 

      *I am sure the number crunching sub-attorneys in the bowels of the Petroleum Club or at a cubicle at B&W are following it closely so they can properly set the buy-out w/ gag order settlement amounts and couch the EA team on how to dodge liability by never promising, for instance, specifically that people will be safe in proximity to their operations. 



    • Duke CoxDuke Cox says:

      Just say no…..

Leave a Reply

Comment from your Facebook account

You may comment with your Colorado Pols account above (click here to register), or via Facebook below.