Research conducted by the University of Calgary has identified a possible connection between fracking and increased risks to the health of pregnant people and their babies.

The study, which was undertaken by the Cumming School of Medicine, found the number of spontaneous premature births (before 37 weeks) “increased significantly relative to the number of fracking sites within 10 kilometres” of a pregnant woman’s home.

Health data shows increased risk of preterm deliveries for pregnant people near fracking operations 

“Fracking” is the short-hand term used for “hydraulic fracturing”, a process in which water, sand, and chemicals are injected at high pressures into rock formations to release natural oil and gas.

The University of Calgary’s study aimed to contribute to a relative lack of research about the risks fracking operations pose to pregnant women and their babies. Researchers analyzed five years of health data (2013 to 2018) from pregnant women living near fracking sites.

Amy Metcalfe, a co-principal investigator and associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology, reported that pregnant women living near one to 24 well sites had a 7.4% risk of early delivery. In areas with 100 or more fracking operations, the risk climbs to 11.4%.

Premature birth linked to developmental and behavioural difficulties

Research has shown that preterm birth is the cause of almost two-thirds of infant deaths in Canada and is associated with an increased risk of adult-onset chronic diseases. Professor Metcalfe of the University of Calgary explained that premature birth places babies at risk for a number of birth injuries and developmental issues, including neurodevelopmental problems, physical disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy.

The Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health notes that the impact of preterm birth extends beyond immediate health challenges, stating:

“In addition to these health effects, preterm birth has social and financial impacts on the affected individuals and their families, and places additional costs on society in terms of healthcare and education.”

Additional research planned to study fracking’s effect on child development

While she states that “it would be a weird coincidence” if the elevated rate of preterm births in areas surrounding fracking sites was caused by other factors, Professor Metcalfe acknowledges that she cannot conclude from the study alone that fracking causes adverse birth effects. She explains that additional research is required to identify the physical factors that actually cause this increased rate of premature births. 

However, the study’s conclusion notes that its results “may be relevant to health policy regarding legislation of unconventional oil and gas development in Canada and internationally”.

The University of Calgary’s School of Education will join the research going forward, with the goal of determining whether fracking impacts child development. A further study is planned which will assess the thinking, academic, and social-emotional skills of young children living in communities close to and far away from fracking operations (Grande Prairie and Lethbridge, respectively). The study’s participants will also wear a device to monitor air pollution in their immediate surroundings.

Research latest in a number of studies on fracking’s effect on human health

Due to concerns about its effect on the environment and potential risks posed to human health, fracking is a controversial topic throughout Canada and worldwide. In 2020, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment released a report stating that fracking poses a number of risks to human health, including congenital anomalies, cancers, and asthma.

In British Columbia, research is ongoing to determine fracking’s impact on air quality and exposure to contaminants in neighbouring communities. This research stems from a previous study by the University of Toronto which found that pregnant women living near natural gas wells in northeastern B.C. were subject to a higher level of volatile organic pollutants in their homes.

Hydraulic fracturing has also been associated with more indirect risks to human health. An investigation by Alberta’s energy regulators concluded a number of earthquakes and seismic events occurring in 2018 and 2019 in Red Deer and Sylvan Lake had been triggered by nearby fracking operations.

Variable outcomes in fracking litigation on either sides of the border

To date, fracking-related litigation has had variable results in Canada and the United States.

Ernst v. Alberta Energy Regulator and EnCana

One of the highest-profile fracking lawsuits in Canada was that of Jessica Ernst, an oil patch environmental consultant. In 2007, Ernst sued the Alberta government, energy producer EnCana, and the Alberta Energy Regulator, alleging that EnCana’s fracking operations in central Alberta had contaminated water supplies throughout the surrounding area.

A side issue arose when Ernst’s communications with the Alberta Energy Regulator resulted in her prohibition from contacting the regulator’s offices, a decision she claimed was a breach of her constitutional right to freedom of expression. That dispute proceeded to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled against Ernst on the basis of an immunity clause contained within the regulator’s governing legislation.

Jessica Ernst’s primary legal battle ended in April 2021, when the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta granted applications brought by EnCana and Alberta to dismiss the case due to delay. Ernst stated that the case had languished after she had been unable to find replacement counsel when her lawyers quit in 2018.

Pennsylvania families receive $3 million settlement after claiming nearby fracking caused health issues

On the other side of the border, three families in Pennsylvania brought lawsuits against gas drilling company Range Resources in 2012, alleging that the company’s fracking operations had contaminated their air, groundwater, and surfacewater. One family’s son was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning, while others complained of nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and rashes. Range Resources denied wrongdoing throughout the litigation but eventually agreed to a $3 million settlement in 2018.

For now, it remains to be seen whether the University of Calgary’s research will trigger legal action from plaintiffs alleging that they have suffered negative health effects from living in close proximity to fracking sites. 

Cuming & Gillespie LLP is an established leader in Alberta’s medical malpractice legal community. Our skilled lawyers understand the substantial hardships faced by families of children requiring long-term care as the result of a birth injury and related disorders, including cerebral palsy. We are passionate advocates for our clients and help secure the maximum compensation possible to ease their financial burdens and support their children’s needs.