Fracking Chemicals Linked to Respiratory Health Risks

Oakland, CA-A new review released online today in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health shows that a clearer scientific understanding of the public health and environmental impacts of modern unconventional oil and natural gas development is emerging and that chemicals from unconventional oil and gas (UOG) operations, including from fracking, pose serious health risks, in particular to infants and young children.

The review finds that at least 5 chemicals used and produced by UOG and fracking operations have well-known respiratory health effects for infants and children. 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 reported health symptoms per person, this comprehensive literature review adds to the growing scientific concern that fracking poses unacceptable health risks to nearby communities.

The paper, “Hazards of UOG emissions on children’s and infants’ respiratory health,” reviewed the literature around chemicals associated with fracking and other UOG methods.

“Infants and children are more vulnerable to negative health impacts of pollutants found near UOG sites. As highlighted in this review, these pollutants can create greater risks for asthma and other respiratory diseases in in those children living, playing, and going to school near these sites, said Katie Huffling of the Alliance for Nurses of Healthy Environments, one of the authors of the review. “Protecting children from these pollutants needs to become a priority in areas with UOG.”

“Our article presents a discussion of current knowledge of health risks from exposure to UOG operations to vulnerable unborn developing babies and young children. This information is derived from many recent peer-reviewed studies. We seek to share our knowledge through public education.” said Sheila Bushkin of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University at Albany, the senior author of the review.

“Notable information gaps remain and we still need better data to characterize the frequency, duration, and degree of exposure for children. However, the science linking adverse health effects to air pollutants we know to be associated with oil and gas development processes, coupled with the emerging epidemiological research on shale gas, clearly warrants further investigation into how this vulnerable population may be at risk.”   said Jake Hays, Director of the Environmental Health Program at PSE Healthy Energy and one of the authors of the review.

The review released today, co-authored by CEH’s Research Director Caroline Cox and Healthy Energy Sciences & Advocacy Manager Ellen Webb, found serious health risks, including:

  • Asthma: Some evidence from studies suggests that ozone, particulate matter and ambient benzene and formaldehyde is implicated in the induction of asthma. A strong association between ozone exposure and hospitalizations for adverse respiratory health effects have been reported, particularly for an increase in emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to asthma.
  • Reduced lung and pulmonary function: Air pollution can cause a range of reactions in human body including reduced lung function associated with inhalation of benzene, formaldehyde, particulate matter and ozone.
  • Increased susceptibility to infection and decreased immunity: In addition to causing changes to the respiratory system, chemicals such as ozone are believed to affect immune response leading to more lung infections. Studies have reported an association between ozone and an increase in susceptibility to infection.
  • Chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, wheezing and coughing:In addition to being a carcinogen, benzene is also a respiratory irritant and can pose serious risks to respiratory health. In children, benzene and formaldehyde exposure has also been associated with adverse respiratory health outcomes, including increased occurrence of cough and wheezing.
  • Lung and pulmonary inflammation: Some fracking chemicals, especially VOCs mixtures may be responsible for increased lung inflammation.

“To protect the health of children and infants and families nationwide, state and federal agencies should adopt a precautionary approach when establishing permitting rules and standards for UOG development and production, this includes fracking,” said Ellen Webb, lead author of the review. “Families deserve protection and children deserve a healthy future. More research is needed, but in the meantime, regulatory changes are needed that will protect children and infants from harmful chemicals that could have life-long health implications.”