What Fracking Does to Your Hormones

New research suggests the gas-drilling process can release harmful chemicals that disrupt human hormones.

A gas flare, created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure valves during natural gas and oil drilling, rises out of the ground in North Dakota.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Dec. 16, 2013, 10:05 a.m.

Hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, com­monly known as frack­ing, is get­ting some new heat for shak­ing things up. This time, however, it’s not about earth­quakes, but dis­rup­tions in the hu­man en­do­crine sys­tem.

Frack­ing uses chem­ic­als that can dis­rupt the body’s hor­mones, namely re­pro­duct­ive hor­mones. Such chem­ic­als seep in­to drink­ing wa­ter at nat­ur­al-gas drilling sites dur­ing spills or ac­ci­dents, and can in­ter­fere with en­do­crine func­tions when they enter the body, ac­cord­ing to new re­search pub­lished in the journ­al En­do­crino­logy.

In this study, re­search­ers from the Uni­versity of Mis­souri and the U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey picked 12 sus­pec­ted or known en­do­crine-dis­rupt­ing chem­ic­als and meas­ured their abil­ity to in­ter­fere with the body’s re­sponse to testoster­one and es­tro­gen. They col­lec­ted samples that would con­tain these chem­ic­als from ground­wa­ter at frack­ing sites that had ex­per­i­enced spills or ac­ci­dents in a drilling-dense area of Col­or­ado. They also took samples from nearby, spill-free sites with min­im­al usu­al drilling.

Their res­ults showed that the wa­ter samples from the act­ive frack­ing sites had high­er levels of en­do­crine-dis­rupt­ing chem­ic­als than in sites with little drilling. Their heightened pres­ence in cer­tain areas ups the risk of health prob­lems for people liv­ing nearby, the re­search­ers con­clude.

En­ergy In Depth, a re­search group fun­ded by the oil and gas in­dustry, re­leased a lengthy re­but­tal to the find­ings after the re­search was an­nounced Monday.

Frack­ing is not the only source of en­do­crine-dis­rupt­ing chem­ic­als, however. These sub­stances are every­where, and have been for years. They ex­ist in our drink­ing wa­ter, plastic food con­tain­ers and fur­niture. They can mim­ic or in­ter­fere with hor­mones, as well as in­crease or de­crease hor­mone pro­duc­tion. Their pres­ence has been linked to can­cer, birth de­fects, and in­fer­til­ity.

Frack­ing is cur­rently not fully sub­ject to fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion in­scribed in the Safe Drink­ing Wa­ter Act, which sets health-based stand­ards for drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity in the United States. Sen. Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., whose state is at the cen­ter of the frack­ing de­bate, wants to help change that. In June, he pro­posed the Frac­tur­ing Re­spons­ib­il­ity and Aware­ness of Chem­ic­als Act, or FRAC Act, which would define frack­ing as a fed­er­ally reg­u­lated activ­ity un­der the drink­ing-wa­ter law. The le­gis­la­tion, which would also re­quire the en­ergy in­dustry to dis­close the chem­ic­als used in frack­ing li­quid, re­mains in com­mit­tee.

En­do­crine-dis­rupt­ing chem­ic­als are es­sen­tially un­avoid­able in our mod­ern world. Right now, though, chem­ic­als re­leased through frack­ing may just be less un­avoid­able for some people than oth­ers.

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