Fracking: The New Hormone Disruptor

Fracking is hard to love, and it's even harder to embrace after the latest health study condemning the dirty energy practice.

December 20, 2013


Fracking is a hard thing to love. On one side of the fossil-fuel drilling technology, you have industry bigwigs promising it's safe. On the other side, there's a growing number of nonindustry-funded scientists saying, "Hold up! We're seeing some major problems."


The latest bad news for fracking supporters? It's tinkering with our delicate hormonal systems, setting up our children for birth defects and infertility.

Fracking—the correct term is hydraulic fracturing—involves blasting chemical-laced water through deep rock formations at high pressure to break the rocks, releasing the gas. There are a few problems with this that we already know: When considering the entire life cycle, fracking creates dirty, climate-disrupting emissions on par with the coal industry. It also creates dangerous air pollution, tainting once-pristine country air so much it's sometimes worse than the air near city highways. In addition, it's a huge water waster, polluting precious H2O and taking large quantities of it out of the water table for good.

But then there's the water on the surface. A new study, one not funded by industry, has found endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) linked to birth defects and infertility near drilling sites. "More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function," explains one of the study's authors, Susan C. Nagel, PhD, of the University of Missouri. "With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure."

She and fellow researchers looked at 12 suspected or known EDCs used in natural-gas fracking operations and measured their ability to mimic or block the body's male and female sex hormones. They used ground and surface water from sites with recent drilling spills or accidents in a high-drilling zone in Garfield County, Colorado, an area with more than 10,000 active natural gas wells. They compared those samples against ones taken in areas with little drilling.

Drilling-site water samples contained higher levels of EDCs that interfere with how your body deals with androgens, which includes hormones like testosterone. Chemicals found also tamper with normal reproductive estrogen levels. Researchers say they uncovered moderate to high levels of these dangerous hormone-disrupting chemicals. They even detected moderate levels in the Colorado River, the well-known body of water that now serves as the drainage basin for natural-gas drilling sites.

"Fracking is exempt from federal regulations to protect water quality, but spills associated with natural-gas drilling can contaminate surface, ground, and drinking water," Nagel says. "We found more endocrine-disrupting activity in the water close to drilling locations that had experienced spills than at control sites. This could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to EDCs."

The study will appear in the journal Endocrinology.

EDCs often act in mysterious ways, meaning the damage isn't immediately noticed, as it would be in something like high-dose poisonings. Instead, exposure during critical times of development could lead to permanent changes in development and irreversible health problems. For more information, read What Is a "Hormone Disruptor" Anyway?

Tags: Fracking