Calgary, AB – A multidisciplinary team of researchers with expertise in medicine, education, engineering, geography, science, and law is investigating maternal and child health, child development, regulations and policy related to hydraulic fracturing in Alberta.
Commonly called fracking, this is a type of unconventional oil and gas production that involves the use of directional drilling and the injection of large amounts of fluid into wells to facilitate the extraction of natural gas and oil. In Alberta, there are over 150,000 active wells located around the province. The process of fracking occurs over a short period over the lifetime of a well.
In the first study the University of Calgary team has published in this research area; the scientists discovered a link between the density of fracking operations and increased risk for poor health outcomes for pregnant people and their babies.
“Pre-term infants are at higher risk of developing neurodevelopmental difficulties, physical disabilities, and behaviour problems, including autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy,” says Metcalfe.
Researchers reviewed health data of reproductive age females (18-to-50) over a five-year period (2013-2018). They looked specifically at those living in rural areas whose homes were near fracking sites. Results of the study have been published in JAMA Pediatrics.
“We found risk to maternal and child health increased with the density of fracked well sites close to the home versus the distance from the well site,” said Carly McMorris, PhD, co-principal investigator and associate professor at the Werklund School of Education. She added “In this study, data showed the risk of being born small for gestational age jumped from eight per cent for those exposed to one to 24 wells to 12.6 per cent for those exposed to 100 or more wells.”
Being born too early or small can have long-lasting health and developmental impacts for children and has also been shown to be a strong predictor of later cardiovascular disease in mothers. McMorris is currently recruiting participants for a study to better understand whether hydraulic fracturing impacts child development.
The researchers will assess thinking skills, academic abilities and social-emotional functioning in children in grades one-through-three living in a community close to and remote from fracking operations. The communities selected are Grande Prairie and Lethbridge. The children will also wear a device that will test air pollution around them, for one week.
Researchers say the results from these studies will provide evidence that could help inform decisions and practices related to fracking. Current legislation in Alberta requires that sites be at least 100 metres away from residential locations.
The study is supported by the New Frontiers in Research Fund administered by the Tri-Agency Institutional Programs Secretariate on behalf of Canada’s three federal research funding agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).
The other members of the team are first author Zoe F. Cairncross, MPH, Isabelle Couloigner, PhD, Faculty of Arts, Cathryn Ryan, PhD, Faculty of Science, Lucija Muehlenbachs, PhD, Faculty of Arts, Nickie Nikolaou, LLM, Faculty of Law, Ron Chik-Kwong Wong, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering, Selwynne M. Hawkins, BSc, Faculty of Law, Stefania Bertazzon, PhD, Faculty of Arts, and Jason Cabaj, MD, Cumming School of Medicine.