A new study found that women – particularly Latina women – living near sites where excess gas is burned off are more likely to have problems giving birth.
In the environmental study, scientists at the University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles discovered that pregnant women exposed to natural gas flaring, in which refineries dispose of excess gas by burning it, are up to 50% more likely to experience premature birth, which can lead to many other health problems.
“Women who identified as Latina or Hispanic in our study were exposed to more flaring and more likely to see an increased risk of preterm birth, raising environmental justice concerns about the oil and gas boom in south Texas,” said Lara Cushing, an environmental health scientist with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who co-led the study with Jill Johnston. “Our study adds to the evidence that oil and gas development is negatively impacting birth outcomes and suggests stricter regulation of the industry is needed.
According to the United States Department of Energy, flaring is defined as, “the controlled combustion of volatile hydrocarbons and venting is the direct release of natural gas into the atmosphere, typically in small amounts.”
Flaring is common at hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, and natural gas extraction sites. But until now, data on both how often this happens as well as its health impacts have largely been limited.
To determine the effects of flaring on pregnancy, scientists examined the birth records of 23,487 infants over a three year period, all within five kilometers of a flaring site. They used satellite imaging to track the number of flaring events that a pregnant woman would be exposed to, and controlled for other maternal risk factors.
According to the study, “[E]xposure to a high number of nightly flare events was associated with a 50% higher odds of preterm birth.”
However, the effects of flaring do not impact everyone equally. According to the study, Latina women were more often exposed to the flaring in the region sampled, which highlights the racial disparity in the harmful effects of industry on health and the environment. “Our stratified analysis suggested that Hispanic women were vulnerable to the effects of flaring on preterm birth, whereas non-Hispanic white women were not,” the study said.
Indeed, this isn’t the only case in which minorities in the U.S. are exposed to more harmful effects of energy production. A separate, but a similar study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that black Americans experience 1.54 times the burden of airborne particulate matter contamination than do the overall population.
As natural gas continues to supply much of the U.S.’ energy, flaring will likely continue. The only question is whether or not it’s harmful effects will cause a more lasting impact.