Review finds fracking chemicals may harm reproductive health and child development

Street art seen near a 'no fracking way' tag
CC BY 2.0 mel

"UOG operations release large amounts of reproductive, immunological, and neurological toxicants, carcinogens as well as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) into the environment that may negatively affect human health."

The claim is quite dramatic and makes for a good press release, benefiting the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) campaign against unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) drilling, widely known as 'fracking'.

Don't look to this study for an objective and well-reasoned scientific analysis of the relative risks for people living near fracking operations, though. You won't find any facts supporting what constitutes "large amounts", a claim which must be questioned in light of the fact that these kind of operations typically are guilty of releasing minute amounts of the really bad chemicals, leaving everyone in a grey zone of "just how much of this stuff do we need to be exposed to for it to harm us?"

Much of the study makes allegations about terrible health effects attributed to a wide array of chemicals but a close review of the paper raises questions. For example, a whole series of the publications reviewed relate to the effects of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), including low birth weights, low testosterone levels, and abnormal menstruation. Huh? PCBs have been banned since the late 1970s. You can be pretty sure that no one is pumping PCBs into or out of their fracking process.

Andrew Nash/CC BY-SA 2.0

In another questionable association, we learn that "Many pesticides have anti-androgenic activity, and a strong association has been found between pesticides and hypospadias" (a deformity of the penis). How exactly are pesticides used in fracking?

We thought the authors might mean 'biocides' rather than 'pesticides', referring to preservatives used in fracking fluids and to prevent growth in pipes. But the studies referenced suggest otherwise; they are based on yet another group of chemicals unrelated to the fracking industry.

If the authors mean to say that some of the more than 750 chemicals added throughout the fracking process can be likened to PCBs or pesticides because of similar chemical structure, they might spend a bit more ink supporting that observation, and less making scary allegations.

Don't get me wrong here. I am in favor of really scaring people about the risks of some of the chemicals in our lives, so that we can motivate political action to use a precautionary principle rather than marketing principles in our management of chemicals. But we need to scare them with objective scientific evidence, or risk being dismissed as fear-mongers.

To do that what we need is real studies: money dedicated to the hard work of collecting epidemiological data, really digging into the identities of the actual chemicals in use and developing data on their safety, and putting good statistics behind the assessment of risks, so that well-reasoned decisions can be reached about protecting the health of people and the environment.

So I guess we do share that conclusion with the authors of Developmental and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas operations. We need more study.

Tags: Chemicals | Fracking


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