When we talk about health, it’s impossible to ignore the impacts certain types of energy have on our breathing, wellness and even cancer risk. And as our country increasingly looks to ways to fuel the modern lifestyle, it’s important to note the potential health side effects of these tactics. Here, we focus on the dangers of fracking, particularly as it relates to human health. (Fracking is just one energy source contributing to the negative health effects of climate change.) And that damage can occur not only when a person is exposed to fracking pollution in the soil, water or air, but even while a child is still forming in an exposed mother’s womb.
And while I focus on the disease risks associated with this modern fuel extraction practice, it’s also important to note the economic burdens included in the dangers of fracking.
For instance, costs associated with drinking water contamination in just one town alone are estimated at more than $11 million. (This is Dimock, Pennsylvania, where residents required a permanently drinking water replacement due to irreversible contamination.)
Another example? The health costs linked to fracking-related air pollution in Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale region. This damage is estimated at $9.8 million a year. In Texas’ Barnett Shale region, those costs reach $270,000 per day during the summer smog season. (1) These are high losses for not only quality of life, but whomever is footing the health insurance bills, as well.
Dangers of Fracking: Toxic Chemicals
Otherwise known as unconventional hydraulic fracturing, fracking is increasingly on the radar of public health scientists due to the harmful extraction, processing and emissions created from this fuel source.
Here’s one of many emerging findings I find concerning: More than 1,000 chemicals in hydraulic fracking fluids are linked to reproductive and developmental health problems, according to Yale School of Public Health researchers. The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental and Epidemiology, voiced concern over how these chemicals could impact current and future generations.
In fracking, industry recovers natural gas from deep within the ground by using a mixture of hydraulic-fracturing fluids that can contain hundreds of chemicals. Sometimes, the drilling goes two miles deep, using high pressure, water and sand to release gas from the rock below.
The problem? Earthquake-level tremors, drinking water pollution and seriously tainted air are real side effects.
For instance, the significant wastewater that flows back to the surface is found to contain fracking fluid chemicals, along with toxic chemicals and radioactive materials from the bedrock it shatters.
Specifically, the Yale team found 157 of the substances used in fracking caused harm. These included arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine and mercury — all considered developmental or reproductive toxic compounds.
Yale researchers said 781 chemicals involved in fracking need to be analyzed to find out if they cause more health threats to humans. This is concerning, given that non-conventional hydraulic fracturing has been in practice for the last few years in the U.S. (2)
This is just the latest example of how the U.S. allows toxic chemicals on the market before they’re adequately tested for long-term impact on human health. We see this, unfortunately, frequently in synthetic scents, chemicals in the food system and other personal care products. Let’s explore the main dangers of fracking in more detail.
Dangers of Fracking: Hormonal Chaos
There are several studies that suggest fracking chemicals impact fertility and other hormonally regulated functions of the body. This includes trouble getting pregnant. An animal study published in the journal Endocrinology found prenatal exposure to chemicals in hydraulic fracturing could lead to trouble getting pregnant. Even more troubling is the fact that these hormone-disrupting chemicals have been detected in ground and surface water.
In the study, scientists looked at 23 common fracking chemicals, investigating how they influence hormones. The findings may not be that surprising, given that the dangers of fracking include exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
These chemicals can block or mimic the body’s hormones. And it’s important to note that hormones go beyond pregnancy. They also serve as messengers that regulate breathing, metabolism and other biological function. And get this: 1,300+ studies show connections between hormone-disrupting chemicals and serious health conditions such as infertility, diabetes, obesity, hormone-related cancers and neurological disorders, according to the Endocrine Society’s 2015 Scientific Statement.
In the study, animals exposed to even lower levels of fracking chemicals than people deal with in the real world suffered negative health impacts.
In this specific study, animals exposed to fracking chemicals suffered abnormal prolactin, follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormones compared to fracking chemical-free lab animals. These are hormones related to becoming pregnancy. (3)
Other chemicals associated with fracking are linked to a higher risk of miscarriage, premature birth and birth defects.
Unhealthy Birth Weight & Heart Abnormalities
The same study above investigating pregnancy problems also found that offspring suffered. Offspring of mother’s exposed to fracking chemicals went on to be more overweight as they aged and suffered abnormal thickening of the heart muscles. These things were not observed in the group not exposed to fracking chemicals. (4)
In late 2017, economists shared another study that should raise the alarm on fracking health effects (and negative economic effects of fracking, too). Princeton health economists looked over birth certificates of 1,000-plus infants born before and during the fracking boom in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013. The findings?
- Babies born within a kilometer of a fracking well faced a 25 percent higher risk of low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds) compared to babies born three kilometers away.
- Babies born within a kilometer of fracking wells also experienced significantly worse scores on the standard infant health index.
- When the same mothers had babies before fracking, the children tended to be much healthier compared to their siblings born in the midst of the fracking outbreak.
- The study authors say chemicals or air pollution due to increased truck traffic and industrialization is likely to blame for the fracking-related health issues in children. (5, 6)
Living with asthma? If your home is near a fracking gas well you’re 1.5 to 4 times liklier to suffer an asthma attack compared to people who don’t live near a well. The study, led by Johns Hopkins researchers and published in 2017 in JAMA Internal Medicine, is the latest in a series showing a much higher asthma attack risk near unconventional hydraulic fracturing wells. In the last 10 years alone, Pennsylvania became home to 9,000+ wells. (7)
The highest risk came during natural gas’ production phase, which can last several years, plaguing a community’s health. This and previous studies linked the attacks to everything from heightened stress, increased noise and pollution from huge rigs and traffic and common chemicals associated with fracking pollution.
“We are concerned with the growing number of studies that have observed health effects associated with this industry. We believe it is time to take a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts.” — Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School (8)
Radon — A Leading Cause of Lung Cancer
Overall, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer (behind only smoking), killing more than 21,000 people in the U.S. annually. (9) And there’s evidence that the dangers of fracking could now include this lung cancer threat, as well.
Levels of radon, a known carcinogen, have been rising since 2004. That’s about the same time fracking starting gaining steal in Pennsylvania. Johns Hopkins researchers said radon levels in Pennsylvania homes could be cause for concern. This is in a state 42 percent of homes already register unsafe radon readings.
The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that major shifts in radon levels occurred near Marcellus shale drillings sites since 2004. Before that, these radon jumps were not noted, researchers said. So how is this cancer-causing, odorless, radioactive gas reaching homes more easily as a result of fracking?
“One plausible explanation for elevated radon levels in people’s homes is the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years. These findings worry us.” — Johns Hopkins researcher team
The ideas is that the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, now taking place in 18 states throughout the country is causing disruption that causes heavy metals and radioactive materials (like radium-226), to rise to the service. Radium-226 decays into radon. Radon is found not only in the soil, but natural gas, too. (10)
Dangers of Fracking: STDs
Strange but true. A 2018 study published in PLOS ONE found that areas in Ohio with fracking activity suffered higher rates of sexually transmitted infections compared to frack-free areas. The Yale study authors explain that many fracking operations bring in out-of-area workforces, mostly comprised of young men who live in work camps. “Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can increase through sexual mixing patterns associated with labor migration,” the authors note.
In fact, researchers are warning that life expectancy in the U.S. is lower than other high-income countries, and STDs are partly to blame. The U.S. has the highest incidence of AIDs compared to other high-income countries, with incidents of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis on the rise. (12)
Final Thoughts on the Dangers of Fracking
- Unconventional hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is touted as “cleaner burning than coal,” although that isn’t the whole story. When you look at the entire practice of getting the gas out of the ground, processing it, shipping it and burning it, it’s actually just as polluting, or even more polluting, than coal. (13)
- Even researchers from other parts of the world are worried about the dangers of fracking. In fact, scientists from London voiced concern, saying “the health of the public should not be compromised simply for the economic benefits to the industry.” (14)
- Fracking causes volatile organic compounds, including carcinogens like benzene and ethyl-benzene, toxic compounds that impact the respiratory and neurological systems.
- Formaldehyde, another carcinogen, is also elevated around fracking communities. (Sunlight helps convert the methane to formaldehyde.)
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