From decreased sperm count to messed up hormones to premature births, exposure to fracking chemicals could lead to long-term reproductive health consequences, according to a pair of studies published this month.
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."
"These findings may have implications for the fertility of men living in regions with dense oil and/or natural gas production."
—Susan Nagel, University of Missouri
Furthermore, prenatal exposure among males to those 23 endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, "caused decreased sperm counts and increased testes, body, heart, and thymus weights and increased serum T in male mice, suggesting multiple organ system impacts," according to the study, which was conducted on mice with wastewater samples from fracking sites in Garfield County, Colorado.
In other words, said 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."
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.
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."