Scientists fear fracking chemicals could contaminate air, water and soil, and expose workers and residents to the substances. (Reuters)

Fracking chemicals 'may affect fertility'

Ian Sample
Researchers in the US have found that many of the 750 or so chemicals used in fracking are associated with fertility and developmental problems.

 People who live near fracking operations should be monitored for chemical contaminants and health problems, according to researchers who have surveyed the risks posed by substances used in the process.

Scientists in the United States found that many of the 750 or so chemicals that are pumped into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rock are associated with fertility and developmental problems.

Although the chemicals have been linked to various health effects, ranging from poor semen quality and endocrine problems to miscarriages and low birth weight, little is known about the levels of chemicals that people are actually exposed to from fracking operations, making it impossible to assess the real risk.

The scientists' study drew on published scientific reports into the health impacts of chemicals such as benzene and toluene, and elements including cadmium and arsenic that are released from rocks in the drilling process.

The team, led by Susan Nagel at the University of Missouri, fears that fracking chemicals could contaminate air, water and soil, and expose workers and residents to the substances.

"We desperately need biomonitoring data from these people. What are people actually exposed to? What are the blood levels of people living in these areas? What are the levels in the workers?" said Nagel.

"It is absolutely in the realm of possibility that at current human exposure levels we might expect to see some of these effects, and at the very least we should be looking for them," she added.

Unconventional operations
The rapid rise of what are called unconventional oil and natural gas operations, which combine horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of rock, increases the risk of air and water pollution, the scientists write in the periodical Reviews on Environmental Health. In the US, more than 15?million people live within 1.5km of unconventional oil and natural gas operations.

Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, a co-author on the study, said that another major unknown is how low-level – but long-term – exposure to multiple chemicals might affect people's health. In light of the potential harm, she argues that the fracking industry should be kept from expanding until the risks are better understood.

Professor Richard Sharpe, who leads a research team on male reproductive health at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at Edinburgh University, agreed that good data from people living near fracking sites is needed.

"It's impossible to say how much of a potential issue this is. I certainly wouldn't dismiss it lightly, but I think we will have to wait for detailed prospective data from well-organised studies to get that," he said.

"The one thing that is certain in all of this is that there should be a voice asking that the necessary surveillance and monitoring should be automatically put in place with such novel developments, in order that we can be reassured that we are not going to recreate another DDT scenario some way down the line," he added. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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