Hydraulic fracturing, the contentious natural gas drilling method, has long been thought to have detrimental health effects on people living nearby (Just check out this disturbing piece on what it's like to live near a shale well).
A recent study should make anyone who is worried about fracking's health effects even more concerned: Researchers have found that fracking fluid contains a number of hormone-disrupting chemicals, which are linked to birth defects, cancer, and infertility.
Published in the journal Endocrinology, the study examined 12 endocrine-disrupting chemicals (both suspected and known) found in fracking fluid—which typically contains over 700 chemicals in total—in a lab. "We found that the majority disrupted estrogen or androgen signaling," says Susan Nagel, the lead author of the study and a researcher in obstetrics, gynecology, and women's health at the University of Missouri.
Next, the researchers took surface and ground water samples from areas near drilling accidents in the fracking-heavy area of Garfield County, Colorado. Compared to water samples in areas with less or no fracking activity, the samples taken from areas near Garfield's drilling sites had moderate to high levels of endocrine-disrupting activity, the study found. Samples from the Colorado River, which acts as a drainage basin for local drilling sites, also had moderate endocrine-disrupting chemical levels.
"We found about twice the amount of endocrine-disrupting activity in samples as we did in control samples," says Nagel. Keep in mind, these findings affect a lot of people—Garfield County has more than 10,000 active natural gas wells. Fracking sites are found in 17 states; since 2005, over 80,000 wells have been drilled or given permits.
This is just the first of many studies that will need to be done—Nagel and her team didn't measure endocrine-disrupting chemical levels in people living near the wells, for example. And while this study only looked at estrogen and androgen-disrupting chemicals, Nagel hopes ultimately to look at other types of endocrine disruptors used in fracking.
"It is just the first study making an association between endocrine-disrupting activity and fracking," she says. "It's not definitive, but we're hoping it will prompt more research into this area so we can know as a nation the safety of this process."