After initially injected into a well, a portion of hydraulic fracturing fluid returns to the surface immediately, dubbed “flow-back,” and some seeps up over the well’s lifespan, called “produced water.” A combination of water, chemical additives and naturally occurring substances, the fluid is typically stored at a fracking site before treatment, recycling or disposal.
But the Environmental Protection Agency warns the excess fluid may have impacts on drinking water resources due to contaminants and byproducts sneaking through the treatment process, surface discharge and spillage.
According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal report, roughly 15.3 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking well.
Researchers from the Univ. of Missouri recently analyzed data from more than 100 peer-reviewed studies that examined links between unconventional oil and gas operation chemicals and human development. They determined the available research suggests a need for an investigation into potential adverse health outcomes, specifically to the endocrine system, a network of glands that produces hormones to regulate growth, metabolism and reproduction.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals adversely affect the body’s development. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, such inhibitors are both naturally occurring and manmade.
A 2011 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce found the 14 leading oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals, which ranged from harmless, such as salt and citric acid, to “extremely toxic,” such as benzene and lead.
“We recommend a process to examine the total endocrine disrupting activity from exposure to the mixtures of chemicals used in and resulting from these operations in addition to examining the effects of each chemical on its own,” said university researcher Susan C. Nagel. “Studying these complex mixtures of chemicals released during fracking is necessary since the chemical identities used in oil and natural gas operations is not always known.”
According to the researchers, benzene, among other volatile organic compounds, are associated with impaired fertility and fecundity “via reduced semen quality and impaired menstrual cycles, as well as increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth and birth defects.”
The researchers cite The Endocrine Disruption Exchange as a resource for a list of health effects associated with chemicals used and produced by oil and gas operations. Of the 980 products identified to be used, 90% had one potential health effect. Around 47% of the products contained one or more chemicals considered to be endocrine disruptors.
The researchers call for a number of recommendations to evaluate the risk of endocrine disrupting chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid, including controlled laboratory animal studies and measurements of chemicals in humans and wildlife, among other recommendations.
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