Living Near Oil and Gas Wells Tied to Low Birth Weight in California Study

An oil well pumps next to a newly constructed neighborhood near Signal Hill in Long Beach, CA. Image: Jim Ruymen, UPI/Alamy Live News

Pregnant women in rural California who lived near active oil and gas wells were 40% more likely to give birth to low birthweight babies, according to a new study. The study conducted by University of California researchers is the first to study how California’s network of oil and gas development affects babies born nearby.

As CalMatters explained, the study, however, didn’t address what factors related to oil and gas development might lead to adverse birth outcomes. But many hazardous air and water pollutants are linked to drilling and oil production, such as

  • Fine airborne particles
  • Mercury and volatile organic compounds like benzene.
  • There’s also commercial activity associated with energy development, which brings truck traffic, dust, noise, and light.

Why This Matters: California is a leader on climate change but it’s also the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the country. California has an old fossil fuel industry and many of its wells are inactive, so this study is important in understanding how even abandoned wells affect human health. At the end of the day, fossil fuel extraction, even in one of the most regulated states, still comes with immense human health costs.

The Study: As Science Daily explained, the study, funded by the California Air Resources Board, is one of the largest of its kind.

  • It analyzed the records of nearly 3 million births to people living within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015.
  • Unlike previous studies, it examined births in both rural and urban areas, and people living near both active and inactive oil and gas sites.
  • While the link between oil and gas production and low birthweight babies was found in rural areas, it didn’t hold up in urban areas, such as large parts of the Los Angeles region.

The Consequences: Eco Watch reported that newborns are deemed to have low birth weight when they weigh less than 5lb and 8oz.

  • It can lead to multiple short-term development issues as small babies often struggle to eat, gain weight and fight infections.
  • Studies also suggest small- and low-birthweight babies are more likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and intellectual and developmental disabilities in later life.

The United States has seen an oil and gas boom since 2008, and while this has been praised as a direct benefit to the economy, we never stopped to look at the environmental and health costs that were simultaneously created. As Forbes explained,

Since fracking took off in 2008, we have more than doubled our proven oil reserves to ~65 billion barrels. Natural gas reserves have surged over 80% to ~430 trillion cubic feet. Already the largest oil and gas producer, the U.S. is set to increase its share of ~17% of global oil production and ~23% of gas.

Why California is Different: Science Daily noted that oil production in California differs from previously-studied states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas because its infrastructure is generally much older, and the state has a high number of inactive wells.

Additionally, because of the geology of the region, many of the sites use enhancement techniques, including fracking and steam and water injection, to access oil reserves.

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