Study shows oil and gas wells have adverse effects on pregnancy

campus study oil well low birth rates
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A study, roughly three years in the making, conducted by a team including UC Berkeley researchers revealed that the negative impacts of oil and gas production reach beyond pollution.

Primary investigator and campus alumna Kathy Tran published the study June 3 as part of her dissertation alongside campus professor Rachel Morello-Frosch, assistant professor at Columbia University Joan Casey and assistant professor at San Francisco State University Lara Cushing. Their findings linked adverse birth outcomes to a pregnant woman’s proximity to oil and gas wells in California.

The study retrospectively examined approximately 3 million births from 2006 to 2015, in which the mothers were within 6.21 miles of a production well. It also compared such effects in rural and urban areas, according to Tran.

“The three major findings were for the rural population,” Tran said. Mothers who were exposed during their pregnancy have a 40% increase in likelihood for low birth weight and a roughly like 20% increase in likelihood for ‘small for gestational age.’ ”

Tran emphasized that while the numbers may not seem important, babies who are born smaller are at higher risk of experiencing health-related issues later on.

Though most of the findings cover rural areas, there was little correlation between proximity to oil and pregnancy effects in urban areas, according to the study.

John Balmes, campus professor of environmental health sciences and a member of Tran’s doctoral committee, explained that it was difficult to determine how production sites influenced adverse birth outcomes in urban areas because there are many other competing factors that could have had similar influence.

Even though the oil and gas industry has been around since the 1900s, there are few studies that focus on its potential environmental and health impacts, especially in California, according to Tran. Balmes noted that this is because most media attention is centered around fracking, a fairly new practice.

“The state has been making decisions on how to permit oil and gas without having any studies really about potential environmental and health impacts,” Tran said. “The study really can at least help inform policymakers about what things they should be considering.”

Though Berkeley residents aren’t directly affected by such wells, since most are present in Kern and Los Angeles County, Casey emphasized that understanding the risks they pose are important, as at least 2 million Californians live within 1 mile of an active well.

Likewise, oil and gas production is integrated into modern-day society, and Berkeley is no exception, according to Balmes.

“California is a major oil-producing state,” Balmes said. “People sometimes forget about that, and so we should be moving away from use of fossil fuels for transportation and power generation.”

Balmes also noted that understanding the problems that stem from oil extraction in the state is key to moving away from a fossil fuel-based infrastructure.

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough