Study: Fracking fluids could disrupt hormones, raise infertility risk

Practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas is spreading, making risk of exposure greater, researchers say

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Pa., on April 13, 2012.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Fluid used in hydraulic fracturing — better known simply as fracking — contain chemicals that can disrupt the functioning of human hormones and lead to a greater chance of infertility, cancer and other health problems, researchers said Monday.

Fracking has accelerated under the Obama administration, with supporters of the practice suggesting that the method of extracting oil and natural gas from shale rock by injecting thousands of gallons of highly pressurized fluids could provide a means to greater energy independence and a boost to the U.S. economy.

But environmentalists decry the practice, arguing that not enough is known about the chemicals used in the process and that the risk of pollution outweighs any benefits.

A new study, however, suggests that endrocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — substances that can interfere with the body’s normal hormonal functions — are found in the cocktail that makes up fracking fluid.

“More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function,” said Susan C. Nagel, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and a co-author of the study, in a release.

"This could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to EDCs," she said.

The researchers said more than 100 of the ingredients were known or suspected EDCs.

Nagel said in a release that the results were especially worrying considering that fracking is on the rise across the U.S., making the risk of exposure greater. 

The EPA admits that fracking fluid can contaminate drinking water during the process of fracking, but the agency won't complete its study on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking and ground water until 2014. 

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday proposed the transport of fracking fluid waste by barge, which critics say could threaten the drinking water of millions of people. Currently, fracking waste is transported by truck or rail, which the Coast Guard said involves a greater accident risk than shipping by barge.

Unregulated industry

The study, which was carried out by The Endocrine Society, a national hormone research organization, examined surface and ground water samples in sites that had experienced spills or other drilling accidents.

The results were published Monday in the organization’s journal Endocrinology.

The researchers examined 12 suspected or known EDCs in samples from heavily drilled Garfield County, Colo. — which has more than 10,000 active natural gas wells — as well as from other sites in the county. Those were compared with samples from Boone County, Missouri, where low levels of drilling occurred and where there were no known spills.

Results showed that water samples from drilling sites had higher levels of EDCs that could interfere with the body’s response to hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, both of which are related to reproduction. Minimal EDC activity was recorded at sites without spills.

“Fracking is exempt from federal regulations to protect water quality, but spills associated with natural gas drilling can contaminate surface, ground and drinking water,” Nagel said in a released statement. 

She added that her team found more endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the water close to drilling locations that had experienced spills than at control sites.

A 2011 study by Duke University found elevated levels of radium in fracking waste water from a treatment plant in Pennsylvania.

Environment America, an advocacy group, has said that fracking in 2012 produced 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater from the more than 80,000 active wells across the U.S.

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