Fracking Chemicals Linked to Serious Reproductive, Developmental Health Risks

Oakland, CA-A new paper released online today in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health finds that chemicals from unconventional oil and gas (UOG) operations, including from fracking, pose serious health risks, in particular to women and young children. The review finds that fracking operations use and/or create chemicals linked to birth defects, infertility, miscarriage, impaired fetal growth, low birth weight, preterm birth, and premature or delayed sexual development, among other health problems. Following a recent air monitoring study documenting pollution risks from fracking, this comprehensive literature review adds to the growing scientific concern that fracking poses unacceptable health risks to nearby communities.

The paper, “Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Chemicals Associated with Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas Operations,” reviews the literature around chemicals associated with fracking and other UOG methods. “Scientific evidence is rapidly emerging on the health effects from fracking,” said Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, MD, MPH, one of the corresponding authors of the review and a member of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University at Albany, and of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. “This article focuses on the adverse effects of fracking operations on the reproductive health of men and women, and on fetuses and children during their most fragile, vulnerable stages of early development.”

“Research from laboratory and human studies demonstrates that exposure to many chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas drilling can reduce fertility in adults and cause short term and long term negative health effects in babies and children,” said Dr. Susan Nagel, an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the senior author of the review.

Fracking operations may involve the use of any number of more than 750 chemicals; many of these chemicals are routinely released into the environment, posing health threats to nearby communities. Studies have shown chemical contamination of air and water near fracking operations. A recent 5-state air monitoring study, co-authored by CEH staff, found air pollution from fracking in some areas at levels above government safety standards. The review released today, co-authored by CEH’s Energy and Health Program Associate Ellen Webb, MPH, found additional serious health risks, including:

  • Endocrine disruption: More than 130 chemicals that may be used in fracking are known or suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs have been linked to altered reproductive function, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth and developmental delays in children, and changes in immune function, among other health problems.
  • Reduced semen quality: A common mixture of chemicals associated with UOG operations is benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX chemicals); exposures to one or more of these chemicals are associated with impaired sperm quantity and quality; benzene exposure is also linked to chromosomal abnormalities in sperm.
  • Effects on menstruation and fecundity: Fracking chemicals have been associated with adverse effects on the menstrual cycle and overall fecundity in women. Benzene and/or toluene exposure has been associated with abnormal menstrual cycle length. Industrial exposures to toluene resulted in a two-fold overall reduction in fecundity; toluene has also been associated with difficulty conceiving, the inability to conceive, and premature menopause.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth: Acute exposure to heavy metals is associated with increased risks for of miscarriage and/or stillbirths. Heavy metals are routinely released from fracking and have been shown to contaminate surface and ground water. Exposure to benzene and toluene has also been associated with increased risks for miscarriage. Recent reports have found an unusually high rate of miscarriages and stillbirths from areas near fracking in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and, anecdotally in Vernal, Utah.
  • Preterm birth and low birth weight: Some fracking chemicals, especially particulate matter from air pollution, are associated with increased risks of low birth weight and preterm birth. Nitrogen oxides are also linked to low birth weight and preterm birth. Ozone, another byproduct of UOG operations, has also been linked in a number of studies to low birth weight.

“Federal and state regulators must not ignore the potential serious health impacts from chemicals for families living in close proximity to fracking and other UOG sites,” said Ellen Webb, MPH of CEH. “This growing evidence of health concerns for parents and children suggest that there is an urgent need to halt fracking and evaluate the adverse potential health outcomes for these communities on the front lines of the growing fracking industry.”

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is the leading national nonprofit committed to ending health threats from toxic chemicals in our air, water, food and in products we use every day. CEH protects children and families from harmful chemicals by working with communities, consumers, workers, and government to demand and support safer business practices. We also work with major industries and leaders in green business to promote healthier alternatives to toxic products and practices.

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