Toxins Found in ‘Fracking’ Wastewater Linked to Reproductive Health Problems

January 12, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands.
Photo credit: Simon Fraser University - University Communications/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Fracking uses more than 1,000 different chemicals.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the process of injecting chemical-filled fluid at a high pressure into rocks in order to force open existing cracks and extract oil or gas.  It is a process that creates a massive amount of wastewater.  There is a lot of controversy over the practice because it pollutes the environment by possibly contaminating drinking water, increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, causing negative health effects, and triggering earthquakes.

Now, researchers from the Yale School of Public Health have dug deep by analyzing 1,021 chemicals in fluids used and created by fracking.  What they found was that many of the substances are linked to reproductive and developmental health problems, and the majority had undetermined toxicity since little is known about them.

Although the researchers had little data about the toxicity of 781 of the chemicals, the team was still able to analyze 240 substances and found that 157 of them — including arsenic, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, chlorine, and mercury — are associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity.  Of these, 67 are of particular concern because they had already existing federal health-based standards, according to the scientists.  

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The next question becomes whether the chemicals are in concentrations above these guidelines.

“This evaluation is a first step to prioritize the vast array of potential environmental contaminants from hydraulic fracturing for future exposure and health studies,” said Nicole Deziel, senior author and assistant professor of public health.  “Quantification of the potential exposure to these chemicals, such as by monitoring drinking water in people's homes, is vital for understanding the public health impact of hydraulic fracturing.”

Previous studies have looked into the relationship between proximity to fracking and these health problems, however they did not look at specific chemicals.  The researchers’ results showed that wastewater produced by fracking may be even more toxic than the fracking fluids themselves — meaning focus is required not only on what is used in fracking, but the chemicals and byproducts produced by it.  

“We focused on reproductive and developmental toxicity because these effects may be early indicators of environmental hazards. Gaps in our knowledge highlight the need to improve our understanding of the potential adverse effects associated with these compounds,” said Elise Elliott, a public health doctoral student and the paper's first author.

Clearly, more studies are required to determine the possible threats to human health since the practice of fracking is expected to grow in the future.

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