A study published in Toxicological Sciences found disturbing results for expecting mothers living near fracking wells. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, refers to the use of pressurized water and nearly 1,000 proprietary compounds to break open layers of shale beneath the earth’s surface, where large quantities of natural gas and oil remain trapped. According to recent reports, nearly half of the oil in the US is obtained this way, and almost two-thirds of natural gas are procured via the controversial fracking method. Researchers have discovered at least 200 fracking chemicals in water sources surrounding these areas, leading many to wonder about the health status of the 17 million people who reside in these regions. The Toxicological Sciences study is the first to suggest that pregnant mothers who have been exposed to fracking chemicals could have a harder time fighting illnesses and disease. In short, fracking could seriously disrupt the immune system.
Scientists such as Andrea Gore, a toxicologist at the University of Texas at Austin, have been stimulated by the news: “This is a really important study, especially since the work started with the idea of identifying what’s out there in the environment, how much people are exposed to,” said Gore, an outside observer. She continued, “So it’s all based on this model that has been determined by a real world situation.”
The study follows from another related paper, published in 2016, that linked 23 commonly used fracking chemicals to the inhibition of “estrogen, androgen, glucocorticoid, progesterone, and/or thyroid receptors” in female mice. Pregnant mice were exposed to the compounds throughout the pregnancy, all the way up to the birth. Scientists observed serious developmental and reproductive issues, including “increased body weights, altered uterine and ovary weights, increased heart weights and collagen deposition.”
The recent study used the same 23 chemicals to arrive at its conclusions. As lead author Page Lawrence told Environmental Health News, “The mice whose moms drank water containing the mixture had faster disease onset and more severe disease.” Mice were exposed to fracking chemicals at rates similar to those found at or near hydraulic fracturing sites. Ultimately, the scientists found that exposure to fracking chemicals could cause a number of negative immune effects, including certain allergies, the flu and a particular type of autoimmune disease, known as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE).
Lawrence’s research comes amidst an ever-growing controversy around the use of fracking and its potential effects on nearby denizens. Perhaps most upsetting to policy makers is the lack of data surrounding hydraulic fracturing. In a report published by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), entitled “Toxic Secrets: Companies Exploit Weak US Chemical Rules To Hide Fracking Risks,” the authors lament the severe dearth of information regarding the make-up of fracking chemicals and their potential risks. The relevant statute, Toxic Substances Control Act, does little to prevent fracking companies from using dangerous chemicals to mine for oil and gas. In fact, the law provides protection for these companies, allowing “widespread use of these chemicals with no health testing” and denying “citizens even the most basic information on their identity and use,” according to the PFPI report.
It took the PFPI two years to obtain records pertaining to studies conducted by the EPA and manufacturers. Eventually they discovered that, out of 99 chemicals, there were only two studies available. Even though companies claimed there were 12 studies, 10 of those were without data. The EPA has been equally opaque, having only requested five studies targeting specific fracking chemicals, while admitting that 88 chemicals carry risks ranging from skin irritation to developmental toxicity.
The EPA has been, for too long, reticent on the issue of fracking, claiming in a 2015 draft report that the practice had no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Industry representatives have seized on this purported lack of proof: “If the EPA had any confidence in its draft report, which has been intensely criticized by state regulators and other federal agencies, it would proceed with the peer review process,” said Steve Everley, a representative from the industry group, Energy in Depth. “Rogue” scientists like Dominic DiGiulio have had to go out on their own to publish peer-reviewed studies showing once and for all that fracking is linked to groundwater contamination. Now, this most recent study, published in Toxicological Sciences, could provide further proof that fracking companies are slowly killing US residents.