Fracking Chemicals Linked to Neurodevelopmental Health Impacts

Oakland, CA —A new article released online today in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health shows that substances widely used in unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) development and operations have been linked to impaired brain function in infants, children, and young adults. These impairments include learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory deficits, mental retardation, and autism spectrum disorders. The paper concludes that public health prevention techniques, and stronger state and national regulatory standards are needed in UOG development.

“The peer-reviewed research demonstrates that exposure to chemicals associated with fracking can be dangerous for developing brains. To protect infants and children from potential life-long health impacts, state and federal agencies need to implement sensible rules for siting and managing fracking and other unconventional oil and gas operations. Families deserve protection and children deserve a healthy future, ” said said Ellen Webb, MPH, Health Sciences and Advocacy Manager for Center for Environmental Health (CEH), the lead author of the review.

The review finds that at least five pollutant categories associated with fracking are also associated with increased neurological and neurodevelopmental problems in children: heavy metals (arsenic and manganese), particulate matter (PM), benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes (BTEX), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These five pollutant groups are associated with neurotoxicity, neuroinflammation, psychomotor effects, and neuromuscular effects. Some of these pollutant categories are also linked with neural tube defects and neurodevelopmental effects such as impaired memory, intellectual function, learning and cognitive function. In addition, young children who experience frequent exposure to these pollutants are at particularly high risk for chronic neurological diseases.

The article, “Neurodevelopmental and Neurological Effects of Chemicals Associated with Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas Operations and their Potential Effects on Infants and Children,” reviewed the scientific and medical literature relevant to neurodevelopmental health impacts associated with fracking and other UOG methods.

Following a growing number of epidemiological studies indicating that oil and gas development is associated with adverse health effects, such as increased adverse birth outcomes, hospitalization rates, and respiratory impacts, this comprehensive literature review adds to the growing scientific concern that fracking poses unacceptable health risks to nearby communities.

“Endocrine disrupting compounds pose a significant risk to human health, especially when exposure occurs during fetal and childhood development when hormone sensitive organs are forming,” said Dr. Heather Patisaul, one of the corresponding authors of the review and a Professor in the Center for Human Health and the Environment at the North Carolina State University College of Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina. “That we know so little about the chemical composition of fracking fluid and the possible endocrine disrupting properties of these chemicals is a significant concern.”

“Scientific evidence is rapidly emerging on the health effects from fracking,” said Dr. Eric London, Director of the Autism Treatment Laboratory in Developmental Disabilities at the New York State Institute for Basic Research and the senior author of the review. “This article focuses on the potential for adverse effects of fracking operations on the neurological health of infants and children during their most fragile, vulnerable stages of early development. A similar level of concern should be applied to the role of these environmental toxicants in brain development as we would for infectious diseases.”

The review released today, co-authored by CEH and partners found serious health risks, including:

  • Cognition, Motor & Intellect: Varying levels of exposure to chemicals associated with fracking have been linked with psychomotor effect and neuromuscular effects and neurodevelopmental impairments in memory, attention, learning and intelligence testing in children.
  • Reductions in full-scale and verbal IQ scores in children and symptoms of depression, anxiety and problems with attention in children resulting from high prenatal exposure to PAH.
  • Degenerative disorders and neurodevelopmental brain disorders may be associated with ambient air pollution such as particulate matter. Researchers looking at air pollution have consistently encountered neuroinflammation, damage suggestive of oxidative stress and direct neuronal damage. Neurodevelopmental brain disorders, which affect 10-15% of all births in the U.S. include learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory deficits, mental retardation, and autism spectrum disorders.
  • Behavioral effects including impulsivity, aggression, hyperactivity in children and adolescents.
  • Prenatal PAH exposure has been shown to cause reductions of white matter in the brain that resulted in high scores for ADHD symptoms and conduct disorder problems.
  • Altered hormone function, behavior and disorders: Of the over 750 chemicals used throughout the process of hydraulic fracturing, more than 100 are known or suspected EDCs. A mounting number of studies have reported EDC activity in surface and/or groundwater near UOG operations. Exposure to neuro EDCs that disrupt hormone function during critical periods of prenatal development may enhance susceptibility to sex- and/or hormonally-differentiated behavioral disorders. These and other outcomes have been interpreted to indicate that EDC exposure might contribute to the etiology of disorders with sex-biased prevalence rates such as autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and depression. Studies have linked neuro EDCs with adverse neural and behavioral outcomes in a variety of animal models, including impaired social interaction/activity, increased anxiety and aggression, modified brain sex differences, altered hippocampal spine density and advanced puberty.
  • Neurodevelopmental effects from endocrine disruption: Fracking chemicals including PAHs, have been associated with adverse neurodevelopmental effects. Studies have reported PAHs in ambient air samples near UOG operations. Gestational and in vivo PAH exposure in humans has been linked with several adverse neurodevelopmental effects, including small for gestational age (SGA), reduced length, reduced weight and head circumference. Researchers believe that these adverse effects during fetal development may be caused by PAHs’ ability to change endocrine hormone and receptor levels. Neurodevelopmental outcomes such as head circumference and low birth weight can have important implications for future learning; both have been correlated with poorer cognitive functioning and school performance as well as lower IQ.
  • Neural Tube Defects (NTDs): Studies have linked maternal exposure to some of these fracking chemicals to neural tube defects (both anencephaly and spina bifida) in both experimental animals and human infants. Studies have shown a positive association between maternal exposure to heavy metals, ambient benzene, and PAHs during pregnancy and increased rates of neural tube defects.

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