Could pollution from unconventional oil and gas drilling cause reproductive problems? Scientists at the University of Missouri are trying to answer this question. A study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives assessed the research so far on endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) in chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing. The study presented research linking fracking to EDCs, and the authors recommended an increased focus on these compounds in assessing health risks from fracking pollution.
Endocrine disrupting compounds are a class of chemicals that can alter the delicately balanced endocrine system of the human body, interfering with processes involved in development and reproduction. Some EDCs prevent the endocrine system from carrying out normal functions, while others can mimic hormones naturally found in the body and cause increased endocrine activity. As the study authors note, EDCs are of particular concern because they can have effects at very low concentrations, especially during the early stages of development. Small doses of EDCs can cause drastic health changes, some of which can persist across generations.
One section of the study looked at the endocrine disrupting properties of individual chemicals in fracking fluid. Unfortunately, the identities of many of the approximately 1000 chemicals used in the fracking process are kept under wraps by industry, limiting the extent to which scientists can test any of the health effects they present. Of the chemicals the researchers were able to test, many had endocrine-disrupting properties. When the scientists assessed water samples from areas where drilling-related spills had occurred, they also found elevated endocrine disrupting activity. Chemicals involved in fracking processes are associated with reproductive effects, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and cancer, and several epidemiological studies cited in the paper found elevated risks for these problems in drilling-dense areas.
The study also focused on identifying gaps in our knowledge of EDCs in fracking chemicals. While our understanding of the impacts of individual chemicals is growing, we need to develop better methods for predicting and assessing how these chemicals might interact as part of a complex mixture, where the presence of multiple compounds could result in a more potent disruptive effect than that of one chemical alone. By studying concentrations of EDCs and their byproducts in people’s systems, we can determine what chemicals people are actually exposed to, and gather better information on whether these exposures are related to long-term health issues.
Overall, the study concluded that fracking health studies should include a significant focus on endocrine disrupting compounds. Among the many risks presented by fracking, exposure to complex mixtures of EDCs in the environment may prove to have extraordinary longterm effects.