The Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking
As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.
Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination.
Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure.
Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer.
With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions.
A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations.
How can I be exposed?
Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.
Considerations Around Scientific Certainty
While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking.
Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.
If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:
- For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
- To report a spill or other emergency in PA, contact the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP): 1-800-541-2050 or report to your regional office. In Southwestern PA, call 412-442-4000.
- PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Environmental Complaint Line (PA only): 1-888-723-3721 or online. (To find your state environmental or health agency, click here.)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Violations form online.
- Join the Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry & Resource Network here.