Proximity to Oil and Gas Drilling Sites Linked to Pregnancy Complications and Other Maternal Health Risks

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) measured the effects of oil- and gas- drilling sites on the health of pregnant women living within six miles of drilling operations during a thirteen-year period, from 1996-2009. The study, which DeSmog reported on in January 2022, was the first that specifically examined the impacts of oil and gas drilling on hypertension for pregnant women.

Infants born close to drilling sites are more likely to be born prematurely with lower birth rates, which can contribute to developmental problems. Mothers are more likely to develop complications during pregnancy that have long term consequences, including chronic high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Based on data for more than 2.8 million pregnant women living in Texas between 1996 to 2009, the OSU researchers found that pregnant women living within one kilometer (~0.6 miles) of a drilling site had a five percent greater likelihood of gestational hypertension and a 26 percent higher risk of eclampsia (a rare but serious condition where high blood pressure results in seizures during pregnancy) than pregnant mothers living further away from drilling sites. The researchers controlled for a variety of potential confounding factors, including household income and proximity to the nearest highway.

Oil and gas drilling sites contaminate water, pollute air, and contribute to noise pollution due to truck traffic. These consequences of drilling likely increase stress among expecting mothers, contributing to gestational hypertension and eclampsia. Notably, the data in the OSU study predate the widespread development of “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, a process to extract gas and oil from shale beds by injecting fluids at high pressure. Although much research has focused on the negative health impacts of fracking, the OSU study shows how more traditional forms of oil and gas drilling also impact pregnant women and their babies.

There are no federal standards to require drillers to protect local residents’ health by setting drilling operations back a safe distance from residences. In fact, the oil industry has fought to block any proposed setback requirements. Mary Willis, the study’s lead author, observed that, as gas and oil drilling operations expand, “an increasing segment of the population may be vulnerable to drilling-related pollution.” Texas, the main focus of Willis’s work, does not impose any state laws regulating setback distances for oil and gas drilling. Drilling sites can be as close as 45 meters (~148 feet) to residences.

Corporate media have covered the “pros and cons” of shale gas drilling, but as Project Censored has previously reported, independent news outlets have been more alert to the environmental impacts and health costs of fracking and other forms of petroleum extraction. As of November 2022, no major corporate news organization appears to have covered the OSU study, despite it being the first to document the health impacts of oil and gas drilling on pregnant women. A few independent news outlets, including Courthouse News Service, have covered the report.

Source: Nick Cunningham, “Living Close to Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Higher Risk of Pregnancy Complications, New Study Finds,” DeSmog, January 11, 2022.

Student Researcher: Grace Engel (Salisbury University)

Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Cox (Salisbury University)