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
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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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