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.