Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process by which millions of gallons of chemically laden water are blasted underground to unlock the rich natural gas reserves buried in shale fields, sounds perfectly safe, right? None of the chemicals would ever leach out into the water table, would they? Why should we be concerned with dumping post fraking water into antiquated municipal water treatment systems that have neither a mandate to test for, nor the capability of treating, fracking related chemical contamination? And what could possibly go wrong with post-fracking water stored in open-air pits to evaporate for eternity?
According to industry assertions, nothing can or will go wrong, ever. Fracking is so safe, they contend, that there is no need to test potential contaminants that might make their way into the water supply; no need at all. Ignorance is bliss, I guess, especially when it comes with the promise of monetary rewards, because per the 2005 exemption to the Clean Water Act, fracking related chemical seepage is excluded from testing. That’s right; there is no need to test for toxic contaminants in the water supply from the fracking effluent, even when that effluent sets water aflame. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 lauded by many as a regulatory improvement, falls woefully short in the area of endocrine disruption by relying entirely on traditional, linear, dose response, toxicology methods, which do not work for endocrine disruptors. So we are left to fend for ourselves where fracking safety and endocrine disrupting chemicals are concerned.
Lucky for us there remain a few independent scientists and reporters who don’t buy industry assertions. Unfortunately for us, the voices of those scientists and reporters have very little sway against the billions of dollars in corporate profits and the promise of economic gains that struggling municipalities and their politicians live on.
In the latest of a long line of damning research articles on fracking related water contamination, researchers from University Missouri provide evidence that water contamination occurs where fraking is present (we already knew that) and that the contamination is of the endocrine disrupting sort. Recall endocrine disrupting chemicals are epigenetic nature. That means that in addition to any short-term and immediate ill effects fracking water may elicit, it also will affect the health of unborn children (indeed, our very ability to have children) and their children.
What are Endocrine Disruptors?
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are, as the name sounds, chemicals that disrupt hormone systems. Hormone systems regulate every aspect of human development and survival, not simply those related to reproduction, though the effects on both the male and female reproductive systems are striking. Chemicals that disrupt hormone systems have far-reaching and potentially devastating health consequences that cross generations and are epigenetic. That is, endocrine disruptors effect gene expression in our children and their children, and so on.
Over the last several decades, industry has inundated the environment with endocrine disrupting chemicals across all sectors of consumer products, bisphenol A (BPA) and the myriad of plastics among them. Indeed, as time passes and research is conducted, more and more chemicals are identified as endocrine disruptors. Fifty years from now, the distinction between endocrine disrupting and non-endocrine disrupting may disappear altogether and hopefully along with it, the absurdly short time-frame and ill-defined end-points from which we view the toxic effects industry contaminants, but I digress.
Here, with the latest research on fracking dangers, researchers found that when testing water supplies near active fracking sites and downstream waterways, endocrine disrupting chemicals and activity were present; in some cases, quite strikingly so. In comparison, water from urban and rural reference sites where no or limited fracking occurred, significantly less endocrine disrupting activity was identified.
In the present study Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activity of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling Dense Region researchers measured 12 suspected or known endocrine disrupting chemicals used in fracking operations from both surface and ground water in drilling dense regions (5 testing sites within Garfield County, Colorado with 43-136 natural gas wells per mile and a total of 10,444 active wells) and in drilling absent (1 testing site, Boone County, Missouri) or sparse (2 testing sites, 1-2 wells per mile, also in Garfield County, Colorado) regions.
Of interest, they conducted what are called hormone-receptor binding assays. This means that rather than simply measure the presence or absence or even concentration of particular chemical, they tested whether the chemicals would bind to and either turn on/mimic (agonist) or turn off (antagonize) hormone activity in cells. Recall from our primer on hormone receptors that a hormone, a chemical or a medication must bind to a receptor in order to unlock the potential of the cell.
Hormones, or in this case, chemicals that act like hormones, can be viewed as keys fit within certain receptors and unlock specific biochemical processes. Some keys will turn the cell on and tell it to make more hormones or other compounds, while other keys will effectively turn the cellular machinery off. When in the presence of multiple chemicals or compounds there can be range of modulatory effects that can be additive, synergistic and even competitive. And so, by measuring receptor binding, data from this research shows us that not only are endocrine disrupting chemicals present in the water supply, but to what extent and how they modify hormone activity; an arguably more interesting finding than a straight quantitative measure.
For all 12 chemicals tested, hormone receptor binding activity was observed in the water from each test site in the fracking dense region. The degree and directionality of the hormone receptor activity – whether the chemical activated or blocked cell activities – was site and water source (surface or ground) specific. Overall, 89% of the water samples, from both ground and surface water and Colorado River samples showed some degree of estrogenic activity that was mediated by a single chemical, BPA. BPA was found to be a supra-agonist at the 50% maximal level BPA (EC50, 2uM).
Forty-one percent of the water samples displayed antiestrogenic activity, with estradiol suppression of up to 65%. The most potent of 11 anti-estrogenic chemicals included 2-ethyl-1-hexanol and ethylene glycol. This was the first study to identify many of the fracking chemicals as anti-estrogenic. Only 12% of the samples exhibited androgenic activity, while 46% exhibited anti-androgenic activity (10 chemicals). The most potent anti-androgenic chemicals included ethylene glycol, n,n-dimethyl-formamide and cumene, suppressing testosterone up to 63%. Imagine drinking water daily where contaminants could suppress estradiol or testosterone levels up to 60%. Early menopause or andropause anyone? Imagine raising your children on that water, if you are lucky enough to have had children.
Synthetic Hormones and Health
Exposure to chemicals that increase estrogens is linked to infertility and cancer, in both males and females. When the exposure occurs during critical periods of fetal development, e.g. mom is exposed, both the male and female reproductive tracts of the offspring can be severely affected, with both functional and structural deformities. Anti-androgenic chemical exposures on the other hand, have been found to decrease sperm quality and quantity and elicit male genito-urinary tract defects in the developing fetus. The effects exposure to anti-estrogenic chemicals have not been well studied. Given the hormone’s importance in female reproduction, one would expect, at the very least, problems with infertility. Indeed, researchers from the present study note that one of the sites where high levels of anti-estrogenic activity were found operated as an animal ranch prior to fracking. The ranching has ceased operations because the animals were no longer able to reproduce, presumably, a result of anti-estrogenic and other endocrine disrupting chemical exposures.
As troubling as these findings are, the full scoop of potential ill-effects is not known. This study measured only 12 of the over 750 endocrine disrupting chemicals used in fracking and was able to demonstrate considerable hormone receptor binding that initiated significant agonist (on) and antagonist (off) activity at very small doses. No one really knows how chronic exposure to the full constellation chemicals seeping into the water supply will impact health. If the ranch animals are any indication, there is much to be concerned about.
Common Sense Be Damned
Common sense alone would suggest that the practice of fracking, and certainly, the density of drilling observed in Colorado, Pennsylvania and other regions would be environmentally risky and scrutinized heavily by local governments and federal regulatory agencies. The probability for water table contamination with any one of the hundreds of chemicals used in this process is high, even if each component within the extraction process were to proceed exactly according to plan with neither human error, materials failure nor unintended events. And we know, again by common sense, that nothing or no one performs without error. Alas, common sense is overrated when the prospect of short term economic gains loom heavy.
Like a crack addict jonesing for the next fix, the long term consequences of environmental dangers seem to have no bearing on decision-making when jobs and profit potential are in play. How else can one explain the incredible density of fracking operations over the last decade absent environmental research or protections? Facts are displaced with industry assertions of safety and the happy cognitive dissonance required to take the next hit is maintained. It makes one wonder if we aren’t all crack addicts in the face of economic gain.