There’s a World Going on Underground—Infant Mortality and Fracking in Pennsylvania

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ABSTRACT

Background: There has been a rapid global development of the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing process termed fracking. This involves the dispersion of “produced water” which contains naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) which may contaminate surface water and pose a health risk. Objectives: To investigate association between early (0-28 days) infant mortality by county in Pennsylvania and fracking. Methods: We compared early infant mortality for 2007-2010 after fracking developed with a control period 2003-2006, contrasting a group of the 10 most heavily fracked counties with the rest of Pennsylvania. Results: Whilst early infant deaths decreased by 2.4% in the State over the period, in the 82,558 births in the 10 fracked counties there was a significant increase in mortality (238 vs 193; RR = 1.29; 95% CI 1.05, 1.55; p = 0.011). For the five north east fracked counties Bradford, Susquehanna, Lycoming, Wyoming and Tioga the combined early infant mortality increased from 34 deaths to 60 (RR 1.66; 1.05, 2.51; p = 0.014), whereas in the south western 5 counties Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, Butler and Greene the increase was modest, 157 to 178 (RR 1.18; 0.95, 1.46; p = 0.13). Increased risk was associated with exposure to groundwater, expressed as the county ratio of water wells divided by the number of births. Conclusions: Fracking appears to be associated with early infant mortality in populations living in counties where the process is carried out. There is some evidence that the effect is associated with private water well density and/or environmental law violations.

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