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Chemicals used in the natural gas extraction process known as "fracking" pose significant threats to human health, including cancer, infertility and birth defects, according to a study published this week in the journal Endocrinology.
"More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function," study co-author Dr. Susan C. Nagel, of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, said in an advisory. "With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure."
Researchers took water samples from the surface and deep below ground in areas with many gas drilling sites, and from areas with relatively few wells, then pinpointed in their samples 12 specific chemicals thought to cause endocrine disruption in the human body.
What the researchers found is revealing: water taken from Garfield County, Colorado, which has one of the country's highest concentrations of drilling sites, contained "moderate to high" levels of the dangerous chemicals. They also found "moderate" levels of the toxic chemicals in water taken from the Colorado river, which acts as a drainage basin for the area surrounding the wells. By comparison, very few contaminants were found in water samples taken in Boone County, Missouri, where few fracking wells can be found.
"Fracking is exempt from federal regulations to protect water quality, but spills associated with natural gas drilling can contaminate surface, ground and drinking water," Dr. Nagel added. "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 [the chemicals]."
The advocacy group Environment America reported in October that more than 82,000 fracking wells have been licensed in the U.S. since 2005, spreading the practice to sites in 17 states covering more than 360,000 acres. Environment America also calculated that all together, those wells produced 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in 2012 alone.
"At health clinics, we're seeing nearby residents experiencing nausea, headaches and other symptoms linked to fracking pollution," Pennsylvania toxicologist David Brown said in prepared text. "With billions of gallons of toxic waste coming each year, we're just seeing the 'tip of the iceberg' in terms of health risks."
Photo: Flickr user daveynin, creative commons licensed.