Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Study of fertility risks sought

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

After review, group says research needed on fracking’s effects

Researchers reviewed a number of recent studies of hydraulic fracturing against what is known about reproductive health and found increased risk to both men’s and women’s fertility, fetal development and to the incidence of birth defects.

A group of doctors and scientists from the University of Missouri, the University at Albany-State University of New York, and the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, California, published their literature review Friday in the quarterly scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Health.

They called for “rapid and thorough” health research to better understand the risks to infants, children and adults living near oil and gas development.

More than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of an unconventional oil and gas site, one where operators use hydraulic fracturing to make a well more productive. Researchers identified sources and pathways of potential exposure for people living close to those sites, including both the chemicals and waste products that can find their way into the air and water.

Among the 750 chemicals identified with fracking, the researchers focused on those that have known risks for the human reproductive system, including volatile organic compounds — specifically benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene and formaldehyde — along with heavy metals that can occur in waste products from the process.

The Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an educational group funded by the oil and gas industry, calls North Texas air “the most monitored in the nation,” with 15 permanent state monitors sampling the air hourly for many of those volatile organic compounds.

According to its website, bseec.org, the Houston firm ToxStrategies recently analyzed state air quality data and found no state sample showing dangerous levels of exposure. ToxStrategies published its study in January in Science of the Total Environment. Ed Ireland, the council’s director, did not return a call for comment Friday afternoon.

In an interview, Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, co-author of the newest study, said the research group was able to build on a large body of research that began in the 1980s to identify chemicals and compounds that pose a risk to reproductive health. Studies in 2005 and 2009, which found chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, offer additional proof that a mother’s exposure can affect both her and her growing fetus, Bushkin-Bedient said.

“In this period, a baby is at its most vulnerable; the cells are growing and replicating fast,” she said, adding that it’s important to note these discoveries came before the proliferation of fracking in many communities.

Bushkin-Bedient said the group also found earlier research by veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and pharmacologist Robert Oswald helpful for their work. In 2012, Bamberger and Oswald identified livestock and other animals living near frack sites as sentinels for potential health risks.

They have since published a book, The Real Cost of Fracking (Beacon Press, 2014).

Co-author Susan C. Nagel said both additional laboratory experiments and large-scale epidemiological studies were needed to better understand the risks. The researchers are exploring alternative funding sources to pay for additional literature reviews.

They plan to examine risks in other areas of human health, Bushkin-Bedient said.

However, funding agencies need to make paying for this type of research a priority, Nagel said, particularly given the boom in fracking and its proximity to homes, schools and businesses.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.