UCLA, USC Study Suggests Natural Gas Flaring Increases Preterm Births

Texas Oil Companies Work To Adapt To Falling Oil Prices

A new study from UCLA-USC suggests that flaring - or the burning of excess natural gas - can contribute to the risk of preterm births in women who live near the facilities.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environment Health Perspectives, was conducted at the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, which is one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the country, thanks to the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracturing, known as 'fracking.'

Researchers from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and USC Keck School of Medicine examined whether shorter pregnancies and reduced fetal grown might be related to flaring from oil and gas development in the area. Researchers concluded that women exposed to a high number of nightly flare events had 50% higher odds of preterm birth and shorter gestation periods over those who had no exposure.

Preterm babies are at greater risk of lung and breathing problems at birth, as well as long-term developmental disabilities.

“Prior studies suggest living near oil and gas wells adversely affects birth outcomes, but no studies had yet examined flaring -- the open combustion of natural gas,'' said Lara Cushing, an environmental health scientist with the Fielding School. “Our findings suggest that living within three miles of flaring adversely impacts pregnant women and infants in Texas' Eagle Ford region.''

Researchers also found that the risk for preterm birth among Hispanic women was greater than it was for non-Hispanic white women.

Variables such as age, smoking, insurance status and access to prenatal care were accounted for, researchers stated.

The study examined more than 23,000 live single births between 2012 and 2015 near the Eagle Ford Shale. Fifty-five percent of the women in the study identified as Latina or Hispanic, while 37 percent of the women were white. More than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016 were reported by the research team in a previous study. The flaring is part of an unwanted byprodct of oil extraction. It's burned off as it cannot be readily sold at a profit without posing safety problems.

Previous studies have shown that flares, which can burn for weeks at a time, can release a variety of chemicals, like benzene, and fine particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and black carbon. Many of those pollutants have been identified with a higher risk of preterm and reduced birth weights in other contexts.

“The fact that much of the region is low-income, and that approximately 50% of residents living within three miles of an oil or gas well are people of color, raises environmental justice concerns about the oil and gas boom in south Texas,'' said Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist at the USC Keck School of Medicine, who co-led the study with Cushing.

Researchers say oil companies should adopt new policies and strategies to limit the number of flare events at their facilities.

“Measures to minimize flaring -- such as more stringent regulation of flaring, or investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures that reduce reliance on fossil fuels overall -- would protect the health of infants,'' Johnston said.

Photo: Getty Images

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