Fracking Chemicals May Cause Male Hormonal Changes, Reduced Fertility: Study

New research suggests that the chemicals used during the controversial gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, may reduce fertility and sperm count for men residing in the area. 

In a study published last week in the medical journal Endocrinology, researchers from the University of Missouri indicate that testing on mice found that prenatal exposure to fracking chemicals resulted in lower sperm counts in male mice when they reached adulthood.

More commonly known as fracking, natural gas hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and fluids, which the gas industry has fought to keep secret, into the ground at extremely high pressure, cracking shale deposits and freeing trapped natural gas, which can then be removed. Those fluids are then sucked from the ground and often disposed of in wastewater wells.

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The controversial process has come under increasing scrutiny over the last several years, as it has become an increasingly popular method of gas extraction with the development of new drilling techniques and the discovery of large shale reserves. However, critics have linked fracking to a variety of pollutants, claiming it puts groundwater sources at risk and that increased truck traffic, air pollution and other problems can reduce property values and sicken nearby residents.

While the oil and gas industry has been highly secretive about the chemical mixtures used during the fracking process, researchers were able to isolate and test 24 chemicals used in fracking. They determined that 23 of them were endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which can block or mimic human hormones, potentially affecting the biological processes of the body.

Researchers found that 90% of the chemicals disrupted the functions of estrogens and androgens, like testosterone. More than 40% of the chemicals could interfere with progestins, and 30% affected thyroid hormones, they determined.

In addition, the researchers also found that mice exposed to the highest levels tended to be fatter and had changes to the structure of the heart.

“This study is the first to demonstrate that EDCs commonly used in fracking, at levels realistic for human and animal exposure in these regions, can have an adverse effect on the reproductive health of mice,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Susan C. Nagel, said in an Endocrine Society press release. “In addition to reduced sperm counts, the male mice exposed to the mixture of chemicals had elevated levels of testosterone in their blood and larger testicles. These findings may have implications for the fertility of men living in regions with dense oil and/or natural gas production.”

The study was published just a couple weeks after researchers from Johns Hopkins published a study in Epidemiology which found that pregnant women living near fracking wells were more likely to have a premature birth.

Fracking Chemical Health Concerns

Environmentalists, a number of lawmakers, local communities and consumer advocacy groups have expressed concerns for years that hydrofracking presents a threat to groundwater supplies and the environment.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that some hydraulic fracturing has resulted in polluted water supplies. However, the agency noted that the problem was not yet widespread. It also noted that it lacked sufficient evidence to truly understand how widespread the problem may be.

The state of New York decided to ban some hydraulic fracturing late last year, after a state study found questions and concerns regarding the safety of large-scale extraction wells.

State officials said that a six-year study’s findings indicate dozens of significant potential adverse impacts, and found that the risks of high-volume hydraulic fracturing outweigh any potential economic benefits. That ban is expected to be expanded following a final version of that report released this Spring.

Last year, a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million in damages to a family who sued a hydraulic fracturing company for being a public nuisance. According to allegations raised in a fracking lawsuit filed by the Parr family, nearly two dozen wells near their property caused a private nuisance, exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered property value.

Recent research has also linked fracking wells to an unprecedented increase in powerful earthquakes across the South and Midwest. U.S. government geologists now say that Oklahoma suffers more earthquakes than California, due entirely to hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.


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