New Study Finds Fracking Harmful to Human Reproduction


Prenatal exposure to a cocktail of chemicals commonly used in the various phases of oil and natural gas production, including fracking, could carry long-term reproductive health consequences, according to a new study published on Wednesday.



Research that appears Thursday in the journal Endocrinology shows that “23 commonly used oil and natural gas operation chemicals can activate or inhibit the estrogen, androgen, glucocorticoid, progesterone, and/or thyroid receptors, and mixtures of these chemicals can behave synergistically, additively, or antagonistically in vitro.”

Scientists tested 24 fracking chemicals — including benzene, toluene and bisphenol A — and found that 23 of them could mimic and mess with the natural signaling of estrogens, androgens and other human hormones, including functions critical for the healthy development of sex organs and future fertility. Researchers found that male mice exposed in the womb to minute levels of the mixture developed enlarged testes and decreased sperm counts later in life.

The study’s senior author, Susan Nagel of the University of Missouri: “It is clear EDCs used in fracking can act alone or in combination with other chemicals to interfere with the body’s hormone function.” Those hormones, in turn, regulate the activity of cells and biological processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and digestion.

Fracking companies use a mix of pressurized water, sand and chemicals to unlock hydrocarbon reserves deep in shale rock. Due to what’s known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts fracking operations from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, it is often difficult to ascertain what chemicals are being used and in what concentration.

Still, Nagel stated, “This study is the first to demonstrate that EDCs commonly used in fracking, at levels realistic for human and animal exposure in these regions, can have an adverse effect on the reproductive health of mice. In addition to reduced sperm counts, the male mice exposed to the mixture of chemicals had elevated levels of testosterone in their blood and larger testicles. These findings may have implications for the fertility of men living in regions with dense oil and/or natural gas production.”

Photo of a fracking operation a few hundred feet from the Red Hawk Elementary School in Colorado.

Photo of a fracking operation a few hundred feet from the Red Hawk Elementary School in Colorado.

The Huffington Post points out:

Hormone-disrupting chemicals have become the subject of increasing scientific scrutiny. In a statement published last month, the Endocrine Society, a professional medical organization, described the potentially widespread health threats posed by the class of chemicals. Even at very small concentrations—say, a couple of tablespoons in an Olympic-size swimming pool—exposures to these chemicals early in life have been shown capable of derailing normal brain and sexual development, diminishing the immune system’s ability to fight disease, among other effects. Combine these chemicals, the society warned, and the risks may become all the more unpredictable and worrisome—and potentially costly. An analysis published in March attributed more than $200 billion a year in health care expenses and lost earning potential to hormone-disruptor exposures in the European Union.

Nagel and her team found that in some cases, exposures to lower concentrations actually resulted in greater effects than the higher concentrations. This phenomenon, where minute amounts of a chemical prove more potent than larger quantities, continues to crop up in research on this class of chemicals. Researchers are finding that the dose does not always make the poison — at least not in the ordinary sense. Yet the traditional dose-response assumption remains the basis for most regulatory tests.


Photo of a fracking operation a few hundred feet from the Erie Elementary School in Colorado.

Meanwhile, other new research out this month from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that expectant mothers who live near active natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry in Pennsylvania are at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely and for having high-risk pregnancies.

“The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are,” said study leader Brian Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.”

That small and growing body of research, however, is already telling a story. As Schwartz told Tribune News Service in early October: “There are now four studies that have looked at various aspects of reproductive health in relation to this industry, and all have found something.”

More than 350,000 of California’s six million schoolchildren attend school within one mile of active oil and gas drilling, and most of those kids are minorities, according to a report by the non-profit FracTracker Alliance.

As drilling expands in Pennsylvania, wells have gotten closer to schools. A 2013 report from the environmental group Penn Environment found 26 wells permitted in the state within a half-mile from a school.

Researchers from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health released a study in March 2012 showing that people living within a half-mile of oil and gas fracking operations were exposed to air pollutants at a level that is five times higher than the federal hazard standard. Researchers found a number of potentially toxic chemicals in the air near the wells, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene.

Huffington Post


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