*This story was updated Dec. 6 at 10 a.m. with a response from the Western Energy Alliance.
FRISCO, Colo. — Public health experts today painted a vivid connect-the-dot picture of the risks associated with exposure to toxic fracking chemicals and called for more testing of people and animals in gas patch communities.
The in-depth review, which appeared in the journal “Reviews of Environmental Health” and co-authored by researchers working in public and reproductive health and biological sciences based mainly at the University of Missouri, raised red flags about impacts to reproductive and developmental health, based on the results of existing peer-reviewed studies.
One of the authors of the new paper said their conclusions refute industry assertions that oil and gas operations don’t present a health risk to nearby communities. To the contrary, the systematic review of scientific studies should set off alarm bells among medical professionals in gas patch communities.
A spokesman for the Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade and lobbying group, said the review doesn’t offer any new scientific data.
“There does not appear to be anything new on actual exposure and health risks,” said WEA’s Aaron Johnson, adding that many of the existing studies on the health risks of oil and gas drilling and fracking are hampered by the same fundamental flaw — the “lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals.”
“The movement to ban hydraulic fracturing looks a lot like a stalking horse for shutting off all oil and gas operations using ‘fracking’ as a surrogate,” Boak said via email. “So far as I can tell, the exposure to chemicals is already extensively regulated (even at well sites), and the issue should be what level of enforcement is sufficient to minimize risk.”
But the new paper suggests that, based on what is known about the toxicity of certain chemicals, their presence in oil and gas operations, and the many pathways for human exposure, immediate and extensive health testing is warranted.
“The kind of effects we should be concerned about are the ability to get and stay pregnant; sperm count, menstrual cyclicity, and the ability to ovulate,” said University of Missouri professor Susan Nagel, who has been doing studies in Garfield County and studying health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals for 20 years.
Men who are exposed to some of the chemicals used in fracking and other oil and gas processes should be concerned about lower semen quality. Nagel said her team’s review found many lab studies showing that some of the individual chemicals used in gas patch operations can be linked with disruptions to male reproductive health.
Perhaps even more telling is what their review did not find — any systematic monitoring of men and women who are exposed to the chemicals on a regular basis.
“We do not have data on natural gas and oil workers,” Nagel said, advocating for much better public health monitoring and research in communities where it’s all but certain that people are being exposed to some of the poisonous substances.
“We need to look at large numbers of people living in these areas,” she said. “We should be looking to see if there are systematic negative health outcomes,” she said, adding that biomonitoring studies, using direct blood, urine or tissue sampling, would show what people are being exposed to, and what levels the toxin are building up.
In the context of reproductive health, this is crucial, because fetuses are incredibly sensitive to exposure to some of the most toxic chemicals found near oil and gas drilling sites.
Those chemicals include devilish volatile compounds like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene (BTEX) and formaldehyde, as well as heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead. All are known threats to human developmental and reproductive health and some are known to cause cancer.
If a fetus is exposed during a critical window of vulnerability during prenatal and early postnatal development, there can be potentially permanent damage to the growing embryo and fetus, Nagel said.
All in all, there are enough red flags to show there is a compelling need to learn more about the potential health consequences for adults, infants, and children from these chemicals, said Ellen Webb, with the Center for Environmental Health.
Webb said that a big piece of the puzzle is making sure that people in at-risk areas know what it is they’re facing when it comes to health-threatening compounds. And with the boom-bust nature of the energy industry, the awareness and public health monitoring should start sooner rather than later, she said.
Monitoring now is important because there may be residual health effects in people long after the fracking boom is over, she added. History is full of examples of reckless human use of chemicals with significant subsequent health impacts.
“This work is important because the industry has long portrayed drilling as safe, and now more and more studies are showing there are reasons for concern,” Webb concluded.
Connect the dots:
– There has been and continues to be a dramatic expansion of UOG (unconventional oil and gas) operations.
– Spills, leaks and discharges of UOG wastewater are common.
– UOG chemicals have been measured in air and water near operations.
– UOG chemicals have been directly linked with adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes in laboratory studies.
– UOG chemicals have been associated with adverse human reproductive and developmental health outcomes in epidemiological studies.
Taken together, there is an urgent need for the following:
– Biomonitoring of human, domestic and wild animals for these chemicals systematic and comprehensive epidemiological studies to examine the potential for human harm.