Fracking and health effects

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Fracking involves the use of chemicals that could contaminate water supplies and be harmful to human health.[1] According to the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: Wastewater from fracking contains potentially toxic chemicals used in fracking fluid, as well as natural contaminants from deep underground, including total dissolved solids (e.g., salts, barium, strontium), organic pollutants (e.g., benzene, toluene) and normally occurring radioactive material (NORM) such as Radium 226.[2]

Establishing a direct link between fracking and human health, though, has been complicated by a lack of information on the chemical substances used in the process (kept confidential as trade secrets) and the difficulty of obtaining health records that include residence data, and from there establishing a causal link to fracking.[3]

The process of fracking also increases certain emissions and involves the use of large amounts of chemical-laced water that are removed from the hydrological cycle, aggravating the health risks of air and water pollution, as well as water scarcity.

According to a 2014 study by researchers at Yale, people living near natural gas wells were more than twice as likely to report upper-respiratory and skin problems than those not living near the extraction area.[4]

Fracking chemicals

According to a 2011 US Congressional report, 14 oil and gas companies used over 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products between 2005 and 2009, containing 750 chemicals and components, some extremely toxic and carcinogenic like lead and benzene. The chemicals tend to remain in the ground once the fracturing has been completed, raising fears about long-term contamination."[5]

Congress requested disclosure of chemicals listed as proprietary products, but in most cases oil/gas companies stated they did not have access to proprietary information about products they purchased “off the shelf” from chemical suppliers.[6]

Reviews on Environmental Health December paper, "Fracking Chemicals Linked to Serious Reproductive, Developmental Health Risks," analyzed 240 chemicals contained in fracking fluids. They found that 43% of the chemicals have reproductive toxicity, and are linked to birth defects, infertility, reduced semen quality, and miscarriages. Forty percent of the chemicals pose problems for developmental health, which can stunt fetal development and could cause premature or delayed sexual development.[7]

Fracking and cancer

In October 2014, The National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens added four chemicals that are “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans. Of those chemicals, cumene is listed on the congressional list of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Additionally, EcoWatch notes:

...cumene isn’t the only health hazard associated with fracking. Diesel particulate matter, nitrogen oxides (NOx), road dust, BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) are all potential pollutants associated with fracking that pose health risks. Benzene is also a known carcinogen listed by the Report on Carcinogens (you can search the RoC for chemicals linked to cancer here), VOCs and NOx contribute to the formation of regional ozone which causes smog and is very harmful to the respiratory system. Particulate matter can cause respiratory problems including coughing, airway inflammation and worsening of existing respiratory illnesses such as asthma and COPD, and premature death.[8]


In April 2015 Environmental Health Perspectives published a paper linking radon in homes to shale drilling. [9]

The study analyzed more than 860,000 indoor radon measurements. It concluded that well water, geologic unit, community, weather and unconventional natural gas drilling were associated with indoor radon concentrations.

The authors emphasize that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

Fracking releases "produced water" from underground that rises to the surface and can contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), as well as chemical additives used in drilling.[10]

A February 2011 study in the NY Times, based upon thousands of internal documents obtained by The Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators, and drillers, found never-reported studies by the EPA and a confidential study by the drilling industry that both concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways. The Times found that of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.[11]

A November 2010 study of fracking's effect on radioactive material in the Marcellus Shale by Tracy Bank, a geologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo, found that the process that released the gas also releases uranium trapped in the shale. She said additional study is needed to understand and predict the reaction in the shale to fracking.[12]

Fracking and infants

A 2015 study from the University of Pittsburgh, published in PLOS, reported an increase of underweight babies born to women living nearby fracking wells. [13]

The researchers studied birth weights of 15,400 babies born in southwestern Pennsylvania in Washington, Westmoreland and Butler Counties between 2007 and 2010. It reports that mothers living near fracking had a 34% chance of delivering smaller babies than mothers living farther away.

A 2014 study presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in Philadelphia, the researchers looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites. They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent. The study has yet to be peer-reviewed.[3]

In a study of rural Colorado, the researchers observed an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of congenital heart defects (CHDs) and neural tube defects (NTDs).[14]

A study released in December 2014 in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health on developmental and reproduction impacts from fracking, reported there are health risks associated with the practice.

“Children, developing fetuses, they’re especially vulnerable to environmental factors,” says Ellen Webb, the study's lead author and an energy program associate at the Center for Environmental Health. “We really need to be concerned about the impacts for these future generations.”[15][16]

Air pollution

Carcinogens can evaporate from frack wastewater and become air pollutants. Much of the equipment used in the drilling, production, processing, and transporting of natural gas and oil releases significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which combine in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone, or “smog”,[17] and particulate matter.[18]

Gas- and oil-suffused bedrock contains many toxic hydrocarbons, some of them volatile gases. As soon as a hole is drilled into the formations, the fugitive native gases can escape, including benzene.[19]

Compression stations also known as pumping stations, are facilities that help to transport natural gas. They pose some health effects.A study published in a 2014 Reviews of Environmental Health found that spikes in air toxins around the Minisink, New York compressor coincided with residents’ adverse health symptoms. Toxins included volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as ethyl benzene, n-butane, n-hexane, as well as formaldehyde and particulate matter. Thirty five subjects were surveyed. A physician also conducted interviews. They also provided five monitors to measure fine particulate matter in air near residences for the two months. Participants additionally used special canisters to capture air samples when the compressor emitted strong odors.[20]

Problems with detection

A 2014 study published in Reviews on Environmental Health concluded that air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they do not catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production.

The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project; a 2013 health survey by the group found people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pennsylvania (in the Marcellus Shale) reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties, and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Yet government monitoring data found the air quality was fine.

According to the study, many federal and state-run monitors average their data over 24 hours or take samples once every few days, to assess regional compliance with the Clean Air Act. Yet natural gas facilities have sporadic emission spikes that last only a few hours or minutes. These fleeting events can release particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful toxins into the air, and can quickly lead to localized health effects. When averaged over 24 hours, however, the spikes can easily be missed or ignored.[21]

Endocrine Disruption

A 2015 study found that a fracking cocktail may lower sperm count. The researchers tested benzene, toluene, and bisphenol A and 21 other chemicals found in fracking fluid. Twenty three chemicals were found to be endocrine disrupters. The concoction was “administered to mice throughout the course of their pregnancy so that researchers could observe the [22]

University of Missouri researchers reviewed more than 100 scientific, peer-reviewed publications and examined the studies thoroughly for patterns and links that focused on UOG chemicals and human development. In their peer-reviewed commentary, the authors concluded that available research suggests potential adverse health outcomes and note a dearth of evidence-based research related to the UOG process.[23]

Semen Quality

A 2014 Reviews on Environmental Health paper also looked at fracking chemicals' potential to reduced semen quality. Benzene, toluene, and xylene are often used in unconventional oil and gas operations. Exposure to one, or more of these chemicals can impaired sperm quantity and quality. Benzene exposure is also linked to a sperm's chromosomal abnormalities.[24]

The same 2014 Reviews on Environmental Health paper also found more than 130 chemicals often used in fracking are suspected, or known, endocrine disrupting chemicals. These type of endocrine disrupting chemicals have been linked to altered reproductive function, increased breast cancer, immune function problems, abnormal growth and developmental delays in children.[25]


A 2014 study published in found that fracking chemicals have negative effects on the menstrual cycle and overall reproductive success, or fecundity, in women. Benzene and toluene exposure has been associated with abnormal menstrual cycle length. Exposures to toluene caused fecundity, difficulty conceiving, the inability to conceive, and premature menopause.[26]

Studies on health effects



  1. "Chemicals in Natural Gas Operations: Introduction," TEDX, accessed April 2012.
  2. Colborn, Theo et al., “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective.” International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. September-October 2011, p. 11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Study Shows Fracking Is Bad for Babies," Bloomberg, Jan 4, 2014.
  4. Wendy Koch, "People near 'fracking' wells report health woes," USA Today, Sep. 10, 2014.
  5. Jad Mouawad and Clifford Krauss, [1] "Dark Side of a Natural Gas Boom," New York Times, Dec. 8, 2009.
  6. Lynn Herrmann, "Some hydraulic fracking companies using carcinogenic agents," Digital Journal, April 18, 2011.
  7. "Some hydraulic fracking companies using carcinogenic agents," Center for Environmental Health, December 5, 2014.
  8. "How Fracking Just Got Worse for Your Health" Jennifer Sass, EcoWatch, October 6, 2014.
  9. [2], "Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989–2013." Kusnetz, Nicholas. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2015.
  10. "Introduction to Produced Water," NETL, accessed Jan 2014.
  11. Ian Urbina, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers," NY Times, February 26, 2011.
  12. Don Hopey and Daniel Malloy, "Remember wells almost dug in Collins? Radiation in fracking fluid is a new concern," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 3, 2011.
  13. "Perinatal Outcomes and Unconventional Natural Gas Operations in Southwest Pennsylvania" Science Daily, June 3, 2015.
  14. Lisa M. McKenzie, Ruixin Guo, Roxana Z. Witter, David A. Savitz, Lee S. Newman, and John L. Adgate, "Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado," Environ Health Perspect, Jan 2014.
  15. "Study Links Fracking to Infertility, Miscarriages, Birth Defects" U.S. News & World Report, December 5, 2014.
  16. "Big-Picture Study Of Fracking Operations Suggests Even Small Chemical Exposures Pose Risks" Lynne Peeples, Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.
  17. "Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis," Food and Water Watch Report, March 2012.
  18. "Science And The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers," NPR, May 15, 2012.
  19. Sandra Steingraber, "Safe Hydrofracking Is the New Jumbo Shrimp," HuffPo, June 4, 2012.
  20. David Brown, Weinberger B, Lewis C, Bonaparte H., "Understanding exposure from natural gas drilling puts current air standards to the test," March 2014.
  21. Lisa Song and Jim Morris, "Air monitoring in fracking areas fails to detect spikes in toxic emissions, new study says," CPI, Apr 3, 2014.
  22. "Endocrine-Disrupting Activity of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Adverse Health Outcomes After Prenatal Exposure in Male Mice," Christopher D. Kassotis, Kara C. Klemp, Danh C. Vu, Chung-Ho Lin, Chun-Xia Meng, Cynthia L. Besch-Williford, Lisa Pinatti, R. Thomas Zoeller, Erma Z. Drobnis, Victoria D. Balise, Chiamaka J. Isiguzo, Michelle A. Williams, Donald E. Tillitt, and Susan C. Nagel, Endocrinology, October 2015.
  23. "Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Potential Environmental Contamination and Recommendations to Assess Complex Environmental Mixtures," Environ Health Perspect, Aug 2015.
  24. "Some hydraulic fracking companies using carcinogenic agents," Center for Environmental Health, December 5, 2014.
  25. "Some hydraulic fracking companies using carcinogenic agents," Center for Environmental Health, December 5, 2014.
  26. "Some hydraulic fracking companies using carcinogenic agents," Center for Environmental Health, December 5, 2014.

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