The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences released a report that links natural gas drilling to severe birth defects. Babies who gestated near natural gas wells had an increased chance of developing neural tube and congenital heart defects in utero.

Neural tube defects and congenital heart defects are among the most common of birth defects. They commonly develop in the first trimester as a result smoking, substance abuse, and benzene exposure. The study linked the multiple air pollutants released by natural gas drilling with neural tube and congenital heart defects.  

With support from the Colorado School of Public Health, the study examined information on almost 125,000 births occurring from 1996 to 2009 where the mothers lived within 10 miles of natural gas well during their pregnancy. The study found that pregnant women with a closer proximity to natural gas wells had an increased chance of having children with birth defects.

In order to preserve the study’s credibility, the research was conducted in Colorado’s rural areas with populations that were less than 50,000 so as to eliminate any possibility of other pollutants affecting the research; such as traffic and industry. The study found that babies born in the examined areas posed a 38 percent increased risk of having congenital heart defects as opposed to babies born away from natural gas wells.

Congential heart defects include a variety of complications. They can include damage to the heart’s interior walls, the heart valves, and the veins and arteries. Congenital heart defects are critical problems to a baby’s health because issues with each can weaken the heart and prevent normal blood circulation throughout the body.

The rate of babies born with congential heart defects outside of a 10-mile radius of natural gas wells was 13 per 1,000. Babies born within a 10-mile radius of natural gas wells exhibited a rate 18 per 1,000. The density of wells within a 10-mile radius has posed significant impact on the severity of birth defects, as well.

At its highest, the density of natural gas wells reached around 125 wells per mile. Babies born to mothers living in those areas were twice as likely to develop neural tube defects in utero than those who were not. Neural tube defects include complications like spina bifida, among others.

One chemical in particular has been found to have a strong association with these increased birth defects: benzene.

Benzene is known to be a common, non-genetic factor associated with causing congenital heart and neural tube defects. Benzene gets released into the air as a result of natural gas drilling. During natural gas drilling, gas and water flow back up to the surface after the fracking, this is known as “well completion,” and that process emits several air pollutants, including benzene.  

Benzene is able to cross the placenta, making its way to the fetus. When a woman is continuously exposed to benzene during pregnancy, the benzene accumulates in the uterus and begins to adversely affect the gestating child.  

Colorado is the sixth-highest producing state of natural gas. Natural gas production increased 27 percent from 2007 to 2011 in Colorado, and the state remains split on natural gas drilling. Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette, and Boulder, CO have all passed legislation that eithers bans or places a moratorium on natural gas drilling.

Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.