Well-Being Medical Advances

Living near natural gas flares could jeopardize pregnancies, study finds

natural gas flaming flare sites oil burning environment pregnancy preterm premature gestation period UCLA research data study regression atmosphere chemicals hispanic women maternity
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Story at a glance

  • A report uncovers a connection between preterm birth and oil flaring sites.
  • Researchers from UCLA and USC gathered data to see if location to natural gas burning sites compromises pregnancy.

A new study on the relationship between exposure to natural gas flare sites and premature birth finds a stunning link: The exposure to a high number of nightly flares corresponds to a 50 percent increase in the chance of premature births.

Published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the research was conducted by looking at birth records dating between 2012 to 2015 and satellite mapping to gauge flaring operations during pregnancies within 5 kilometers, or roughly 3 miles, of the maternal residence. To establish a correlation coefficient, researchers used multivariate regression models — a research technique used to estimate a single regression model with more than just one outcome variable — comparing exposure to no exposure. 

The ultimate findings saw a higher risk for a preterm birth and shorter gestational period among the sample population at Eagle Ford Shale located in south Texas. 

“Our study finds that living near flaring is harmful to pregnant women and babies,” co-author Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist at the University of Southern California, told Reuters

The association was primarily seen among Hispanic and Latina women, who reportedly comprise about 55 percent of the sample population. No effect was seen on white or Black women.

Natural gas flaring is a common industry practice among oil and gas companies to burn off excess or imperfect fuel. Releasing those gases into the atmosphere is harmful, however, as it fills the atmosphere with warm temperatures and imparts chemicals in the surrounding air of anyone who inhales.

Reuters notes that some of these chemicals include benzene, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. 

“Our findings hold broader implications for other populations exposed to flaring from OGD. Flaring activity has increased dramatically in the United States over the last five years, spiking by nearly 50% in 2018 from the previous year, the largest absolute gains of any country,” the authors write. “The health impacts of flaring therefore warrant additional study, and our findings require replication in other populations.”