MU research team uncovers link between fracking, endocrine-disrupting chemicals

The team published results suggesting chemicals from fracking spills find their way through the local water system.
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As friction and controversy continue to surround the industry of natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an MU research team is investigating the link between fracking activity and hormone disruption.

Susan Nagel, associate professor of women’s health, is leading the team of MU graduate students and professors to study how natural gas drilling may impact local water supplies. The team recently published evidence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which affect hormone function, making their way into local water supplies following drilling-related incidents.

Hydraulic fracking is a process that starts with drilling a hole thousands of feet in the ground and injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the hole. Nagel said the outcome is a fracture in the rock layers, which releases the trapped natural gas from under the ground.

Recently, President Barack Obama announced new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public land. The new rules, slated to take effect mid-June, require safer drilling methods in about 100,000 oil and gas wells currently in public lands.

Proponents of regulations argue that fracking has harmful effects on the environment and local water supplies, while natural gas producers say the new rules will add burdensome costs.

Graduate student Chris Kassotis, a researcher on Nagel’s team said that one of the biggest advantages to fracking is the impact it has on traditional oil and natural gas consumption.

“The benefits are that it allows oil and gas production within the U.S. in areas where production was not previously possible,” he said. “This greatly expanded natural gas production and has helped transition the U.S. away from coal as a primary energy source and the increased oil yield has helped reduce foreign imports and has contributed to the decline in prices.”

The American Petroleum Institute lists several ways to create safe drilling sites, such as placing liners and rubber composite mats under well pads and rigs, creating storage tanks with secondary containment measures and better controlling any potential runoff.

Without these measures in place, Nagel said waste runoff could pollute the surface and underground water near these sites.

“It is injecting lots of chemicals that we know have adverse health effects into the ground, which generates a whole lot of wastewater which needs to be dealt with,” she said.

Kassotis said he believes more research on treating wastewater should take place to deal with water quality issues.

“Issues that require large volumes of water and have relatively few current methods to treat the wastewater are going to become much more important in the next few years,” he said.

According to a report from the Virginia Community College system, it is possible to treat wastewater, but there is still a possibility that it will remain contaminated.

“Satisfactory disposal of wastewater, whether by surface, subsurface methods or dilution, is dependent on its treatment prior to disposal,” according to the VCCS report. “Adequate treatment is necessary to prevent contamination of receiving waters to a degree which might interfere with their best or intended use, whether it be for water supply, recreation, or any other required purpose.”

Nagel and her team have been looking into the consequences of wastewater through their research. She said they have taken three different approaches while trying to find out how the contaminated water affects humans.

The first approach was a field study in Colorado, where the team found endocrine-disrupting activities were two to three times higher in ground and surface water at places that have wastewater versus sites that did not have any wastewater.

The second approach was a laboratory study where the researchers looked at the chemicals involved in the fracking process. Nagel said the team tested 24 chemicals known to have endocrine-disrupting qualities.

“We’ve seen that almost all of these can disrupt at least one type of hormone in the body,” she said.

The third approach was a lab study that exposed animals to these chemicals. Nagel said the team mixed the chemicals into the animals’ drinking water. She also said they are in the process of analyzing the results on the reproductive health systems of these animals.

Erma Drobnis, team member and assistant professional practice professor for women’s health, said that wastewater mainly impacts reproductive health, especially estrogen and sperm.

“We found that when pregnant mice were given water containing these contaminants, the sons born from the pregnancy had abnormal reproductive characteristics, including low sperm counts, compared to mice whose mothers received normal water,” she said.

Drobnis said that the team has not conducted studies on how wastewater will affect pregnant women living near fracking sites or people exposed to the contaminants. She said the team hopes to do a study in the future.

Since there are no fracking sites in Boone County, it may be hard for college students to understand the environmental and hormonal impact. However, Kassotis said he thinks that giving the students more information will get them to pay more attention.

“While few direct health assessments have been made, our results and several studies and reports have shown that people living nearby these operations may experience increased adverse health effects,” he said. “I think when you talk to people about direct impacts on their health, they tend to listen.”

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