Cancer, Birth Defects and More: Health Risks Linked to Fracking

Government estimates say that gas production will increase by 56 percent by 2040. What does that mean for us?

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Fracking is a buzzword that ignites controversy—yet for many of us, fracking facts may be elusive. Technically known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “unconventional oil and gas development,” fracking is a relatively new technology that removes natural gas and oil from shale formations deep beneath the earth’s crust.

What’s involved: Workers drill deep holes, then inject them with fluid under high pressure. That fractures the rock to release natural gas, according to an article in the Scientific American. Boosters of the technology call fracking a “modern miracle of America’s newfound energy independence,” according to experts at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

But this “modern miracle” may come at a cost to the communities where fracking occurs—and we’re still uncertain as to its full impact on our health, as scientists continue to study its effects. Truth is, though we have clues that fracking may be harmful to humans, it may take generations to reveal just how serious fracking’s health effects will be.

The health effects of fracking
Studies show that the air and water around fracking sites are contaminated with chemicals that harmfully impact several human hormones. These hormones are important for fertility, reproduction, immune function, metabolism and brain development, says Christopher D. Kassotis, PhD, a researcher who has studied fracking at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University. People living close to fracking sites may be exposed to these toxic chemicals via drinking water (and water used for bathing and other purposes) and air. Wastewater and drinking water treatment plants don’t filter these chemicals out of the water system.

In areas near fracking operations:

  • Evidence shows an increase in congenital birth defects, lower birth weight, high-risk pregnancies and pre-term births.
  • There are increased reports of upper respiratory infections, skin conditions, and hospitalization rates for various serious medical conditions.
  • Coughs, shortness of breath and wheezing are common; reports link fracking to increases in asthma cases, according to Forbes Magazine.
  • There are higher rates of urinary, central nervous system, breast and thyroid cancers, as well as acute lymphatic leukemia in children, have also been reported.

Fracking attracts lots of temporary workers to drilling sites. Fracking operations in your town can cause extra noise, traffic—and even higher crime and substance abuse rates, according to the National Institutes of Health. Those problems can change the character of your community.

That said, it’s important to remember that even though reports link higher incidences of health problems to living near fracking sites, it doesn’t necessarily mean that fracking caused the problems, notes Kassotis. Only more research will solve the mystery and potentially confirm the links, he says.

What to do if you live near a fracking site
You probably can’t move away from a fracking site, but you can take measures to lower your body’s toxic burden in general—a good thing when you’re exposed to fracking-related chemicals. These actions can help protect you and your family, says Kassotis:

  • Buy fresh produce when you can.
  • Avoid plastic food packaging and storage.
  • Never heat food in plastic containers.
  • Carbon water filters, like Brita, Pur and others, remove some fracking-related toxins from drinking water. Installing a more expensive reverse-osmosis system in your home will remove even more chemicals.
  • Avoid non-stick cookware. Pay attention to chemicals in your personal care products. The Environmental Working Group maintains easy-to-use lists to help find products containing fewer worrisome ingredients.
  • Look for flame retardant-free TVs, furniture, mattresses when you can.
  • Limit or stop using pesticides in your home.

The bottom line? More research is needed. If you live near a fracking site, be aware that you may be exposed to harmful chemicals, so consider taking steps to lower your overall exposure to toxins. When more research about fracking becomes available, you can bet you’ll read about it here.

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