The Colorado department of health took the unusual step of warning that a new study being touted by anti-fracking groups that suggests a link between birth defects and natural gas development could be misleading.
The pushback has continued to roil a debate in the state over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The study uses birth record data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to suggest “a positive association between greater density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and greater prevalence of [congenital heart defects] and possibly [neural tube defects]” in newborns.
“What we found was that the risk of congenital heart defects increased with greater density of gas wells – with mothers living in the highest-density areas at greatest risk,” Lisa McKenzie, a research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the study, told Al Jazeera America.
But in a statement released last week, the health department disavowed the researcher’s findings.
“We agree there is public concern about the effects of oil and gas operations on health, including birth outcomes,” wrote CDPHE’s chief medical officer and executive director Dr. Larry Wolk. “While this paper was an attempt to address those concerns, we disagree with many of the specific associations with the occurrence of birth defects noted within the study. Therefore, a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.”
Wolk noted that the researchers didn’t know whether the wells used in the research were operational or not. They also didn’t take into account whether the mothers smoked, drank or had access to prenatal care. They also didn’t know whether the child was conceived near a well, but only that the mother lived near a well at the time of birth. And counterintuitively, the study showed that the closer a mother lived to a natural gas well, the chances of premature births were lower.
“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” Wolk wrote. “Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association also attacked the anti-fracking study. The issue cuts across party lines in Colorado, as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is a fracking proponent.
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