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University of Missouri-Columbia Study Links Endocrine System Health Effects to Fracking

In the controversy over potential health effects from hydraulic fracking and the injection of chemicals to abet oil and gas extraction processes, a December 16th, 2013 study released by U. of Missouri-Columbia on Colorado fracking sites has garnered significant attention.    Published in the journal, Endocrinology, the study focused on a selected subset of chemicals, including over one hundred known or suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals (“EDCs”), used in natural gas drilling operations, as well as surface and ground water samples collected in a drilling region of Garfield County, CO.

>EDCs are substances that have the potential to affect the behavior of human hormones, e.g., estrogen, and insulin.  EDCs are prevalent in the environment (in the air, soil, or water supply), food sources, and manufactured products that may interfere with the normal functioning of our body’s endocrine system.   Ubiquitous in consumer products, EDCs are also found in industrial solvents, lubricants and their byproducts, i.e., polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. They are also present in a variety of plastics, plasticizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and anti-bacterials.  Some studies suggest EDCs may have a role in health disorders like cancer, infertility, and diabetes.  Susceptible populations at risk include fetuses, newborn babies, and those with genetic markers or increased risk factors for thyroid disease and cancer. Some scientists suspect that EDCs may adversely impact hormone biosynthesis, causing reproductive and growth disorders, including obesity, abnormal sexual development, as well as learning disabilities like attention deficit and other cognitive disorders.  

Of 39 unique water samples in the study, 89%, 41%, 12%, and 46% exhibited estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, androgenic, and anti-androgenic activities, respectively.  Testing results on a subset of natural gas drilling chemicals also revealed novel anti-estrogenic, novel anti-androgenic, and limited estrogenic activities.  The Colorado River, the drainage basin for this region, exhibited moderate levels of EDCs, suggesting according to researchers, that higher localized activity at sites with known natural gas related spills surrounding the river might be contributing to the multiple receptor activities observed in this water source. Additionally, researchers concluded that natural gas drilling operations may result in elevated EDC activity in surface and ground water compared to reference sites with limited drilling operations nearby.  Click here to read the study.

In an immediate reaction, industry publication Business Insider delivered a response critical of the study on January 12th,  2014, “Is Fracking Causing Infertility, Cancer And Birth Defects? Here’s What We Really Know.”  Lauren Friedman, the author of the Business Insider article, observes:

“Key funding for the (U. of Missouri-Columbia) study was also provided by the Passport Foundation’s Science Innovation Fund, designed to provide support for projects “advancing the environmental health science needed to promulgate effective chemicals regulation [and] public health policies.” (Passport Foundation, the now-defunct philanthropy arm of  Passport Capital, also made grants to organizations that either oppose fracking or support stricter regulations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, EarthJustice, the Environmental Working Group, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.)Given this funding mix, it’s clear that while the science is solid and the findings are notable, there was probably an endgame in mind: more effective regulation around a potentially harmful but still largely mysterious process.So are the chemicals used in fracking really responsible for elevated levels of endocrine disruptors in the water? As Susan Nagel (an endocrinologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia and study author) told Business Insider, ‘it’s a hypothesis that we’re testing, not a proven phenomenon.’”

Click here to read the article.

Other than anecdotal supposition and theoretical hypothesis, as yet there is little scientifically-accepted data demonstrating a causal link between personal injuries and exposure to groundwater arising from fracking activities.  We are unaware of any case which has proceeded to judgment establishing such.