A new study finds that pregnant women living near hydraulic fracking activity in Pennsylvania are more likely to develop depression and anxiety.
“These are vulnerable women who are growing another human being inside of them," said Joan A. Casey, the study's lead author and an environmental health scientist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
Casey and her colleagues conducted the study with 7,715 research volunteers; all were expectant mothers within the Geisinger Health System, which serves much of central Pennsylvania.
“Basically … if we took 100 women and we expose them to the higher levels of fracking activity during pregnancy, four of them would develop anxiety or depression that otherwise would not have developed it,” she said.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America said in an e-mail that it takes issue with the fact the study didn't look at environmental data.
“While these epidemiological studies claim to find possible connections based on limited data sets and assumptions, the reality here in Pennsylvania is that study after study of actual air and water sampling near these sites continue to show that shale development is being done in a way that’s protective of public health," wrote spokesperson Nicole Jacobs.
Casey pointed out that increased traffic connected to fracking can degrade local air quality, while increasing sound pollution and other commotion in a community.
Part of the reason these mothers experienced adverse mental health issues, she said, could be due to concerns around environmental impacts, paired with a lack of control surrounding the changes.
“Mothers have reported feeling like they can't keep their children safe,” she said. “We can't say we're 100 percent sure that these women are developing anxiety or depression during pregnancy as a result of living near unconventional natural gas development in the Marcellus shale, but I don't have another explanation for what we're observing here.”
Casey said her team controlled for a variety of factors including age, race, whether a volunteer smoked and socioeconomic status. Even after taking these factors into account, women that were living closer to a greater number of fracking wells appeared to be at an elevated risk for developing anxiety and depression.
While the study found that a woman’s depression or anxiety issues did not lead her to giving birth prematurely or having a baby with low birth weight, Casey said a mother’s mental health still affects her child.
“There is quite a bit of evidence that women who have anxiety or depression during pregnancy are at an elevated risk of postpartum depression,” she said. “We've all seen the literature on how postpartum depression is can be very serious and can affect both the mother the husband or father of the child as well as the child's development.”
The Department of Health and Human Services says pediatric developmental issues related to maternal post-partum can include speech delays, behavioral and social problems, problems with mother-child bonding, shorter height, risk of obesity, and a child feeling agitated or crying more.
The study was published in the journal "Environmental Research."