Concerned about Fracking, Part 3: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and Earthquakes

by Margaret Roberts

In this three-part series on fracking and human health, Margaret Roberts of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer and the New York State Breast Cancer Network explores some of the many reasons health advocates and others are concerned about the combination of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with horizontal drilling, a large-scale industrial practice taking place with increased frequency across the nation. Part 1 considered “air pollution and accidents” and part 2 on “Water Pollution, Radiation, & Drought” discussed how the gas released and chemicals used in fracking increase the potential for water pollution, exposure to radiation, and drought resulting from the huge amounts of water taken for fracking processes that are not then available for agriculture, commercial needs and drinking water. Part 3 on “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and Earthquakes” discusses how certain chemicals used in fracking operations and/or released from shale rock fractures during earthquakes contribute to a host of negative health outcomes including the development of breast cancer. Earlier versions of these articles were published from CRAAB.org.


“People need to breathe air. People need to drink water. People need to live in an acceptable climate, one they can expect will be stable and unchanging. There are two things involved. Having the community you wanted to live in and you’ve lived in your whole life just taken over from you; and the environment, the water, the air, the climate, the flora the fauna, it’s all under threat. Both of those threats reside on the spectrum of health versus wealth. It’s the health of many versus the wealth of few.”

Cornell University professor, Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Interviewed by EcoWatch

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea is a former industry insider. He’s been a principal investigator on research and development projects ranging from the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through Schlumberger, Gas Research Institute, Sandia National Laboratories, Association of Iron and Steel Engineers, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman Aerospace. As journalist Ellen Cantarow of EcoWatch acknowledges, Ingraffea is a “formidable opponent of anyone who dares to go against him in a debate about high-volume hydraulic fracturing.” To me, Dr. Ingraffea summarizes the concerns of many concerned citizens who contemplate a fracking presence in our communities. Why must our homes, hospitals, and schools be forced to reside in proximity to a gas and oil industry? Proximity matters, and this is true for people, animals, and environments. The chemicals released by fracking operations and the structural damage that leads to greater risk from increased seismic activity near fracking sites puts all of us at risk.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

As you may know, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) – found in pharmaceuticals, pesticides and herbicides, plastics, industrial solvents, and manufacturing byproducts — are chemicals that interfere with hormone function. They are particularly harmful during critical developmental periods of humans and other organisms (e.g., during fetal development and puberty) and may manifest harmful effects much later in life. Exposure to EDCs has been associated with a host of health problems including reproductive effects (such as sperm levels, reproductive abnormalities, infertility, and early puberty) as well as birth defects, learning disabilities, disorders of the nervous and immune systems, and breast cancer. Scientists have identified no safe threshold of exposure to EDCs, especially in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, infants, and children.

According to a report from the World Health Organization on the State of the Science of EDCs, human exposure to EDCs occurs through ingestion of food, dust and water, inhalation of gases and particles in the air and through the skin, and through the placenta and breast milk. EDC compounds are also released into the environment by chemical spills, air emissions, and produced waters from oil and gas drilling operations, which is water that is returned to the surface through a well borehole.

In 2013, scientists at the University of Missouri confirmed in a paper published in the journal Endocrinology entitled, “Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region,” that is an important step in demonstrating that EDCs are a health concern in high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) operations and strongly suggests that chemicals used in fracking processes should be screened for EDC activity. The researchers collected water samples from surface and ground water in Colorado, and in many samples they detected EDCs at concentrations high enough to affect how human cells interact with male sex hormones and estrogen. Water samples collected from areas of intensive gas development showed more estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, or anti-androgenic activities than water from reference sites, suggesting too that HVHF is associated both with exposure to EDCs and with higher EDC activity.

As announced by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project on August 26, 2013, there have been over one thousand different cases of water contamination near fracking sites in the Washington County, PA area they surveyed.  Moreover, in January, 2014, an Associated Press investigation confirmed that fracking operations caused water contamination in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas. The various contaminants included methane, radium, arsenic and, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Clearly, there is a need for studies to ascertain the quantity of EDC’s released in fracking wells of varying sizes and in different types of conditions over time. To this end, in 2014, the Pennsylvania project published a paper in Reviews on Environmental Health calling for new, more stringent protocols for measuring the extent and effects of air pollution on people and the environment.

What do Earthquakes Have to Do With Fracking and Health Outcomes?

Earthquakes are not directly linked to cancer. But they do cause structural damage in the hydraulic fracturing drilling infrastructure and in shale rock fractures that can lead to leaks of methane into the air and of toxic fracking fluid causing water contamination. As discussed in Part 1, water contamination and air pollution from fracking have caused a variety of illnesses in people and animals living near fracking sites. Yet there have been no comprehensive studies to determine the health effects from long-term exposures.

The Nation in February, 2014, reported that the massive surge in earthquakes has prompted Arkansas and Ohio state legislatures to take action to ban fracking wells from areas near fault lines, and other states are studying the links between fracking and earthquakes. In the meantime, researchers have found connections between fracking and earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, and Ohio where there has been a massive increase in seismic activity that parallels the increase in hydraulic fracturing and concomitant increase in wastewater injection wells. In fact, 28 homeowners in Arkansas are suing Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy for allegedly causing thousands of earthquakes that resulted in significant damages to their homes.

Perhaps the most dramatic surge in earthquakes has occurred in Oklahoma. From 1975 to 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey found that central Oklahoma experienced one to three earthquakes (magnitude 3.0+) per year. That number jumped to an average of forty stronger quakes per year from 2009 to 2013, which were interspersed among thousands of weaker ones. But 2014 has seen a huge spike. In February, the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) reported that Oklahoma had already experienced 500 earthquakes since January 1, with 25 having a magnitude of 3.0 or higher, and over 150 occurring in only one week.

The science suggests that the fracking boom is probably, at least in part, to blame. In areas of the country where earthquakes large enough to be felt used to be rare, “the increase in earthquakes may be from injection-induced seismicity from activities such as wastewater disposal.” What’s more, the current regulatory framework for wastewater disposal wells does not address earthquake safety.

Man-Made Earthquakes Update

Man-Made Earthquakes Update: United States and surrounding regions, 2009–2012. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

2011 study, published in the journal Geology, found that wastewater injection triggered a cascade of Oklahoma earthquakes, including the largest quake ever recorded in the state, one that injured two people and destroyed fourteen homes. That 5.7 quake near Prague, OK, was one of three in 2011 that were magnitude-5 or stronger. “Live Science” (an online newsletter) reported on March 7, 2014, that the Prague quake was preceded by a 5.0 quake a day earlier, near an active wastewater disposal well, and researchers concluded that wastewater injection triggered both. Oklahoma has more than 4,400 wastewater disposal wells.

As reported by the Associated Press, geologists in Ohio confirmed that a deep-injection wastewater well was found to be the likely cause of a series of quakes in 2012. In June, 2014, The Columbus Dispatch reported that between 1950 and 2009, Ohio saw an average of two earthquakes greater than 2.0 magnitude each year. Between 2010 and 2014, that number rose to an average of 9 per year. At the end of May, 2014, five earthquakes were recorded in a 25-hour period in Mahoning County, an area that before a few years ago hadn’t seen a sizable earthquake in 100 years.  Officials with Columbia University’s Earth Observatory say that the five earthquakes are part of a string of 11 smaller quakes in the Youngstown, Ohio area that hit one week in March. The fracking process has been linked before to earthquakes in that area, notably in 2012, when a disposal well was shut down after scientists thought that waste injection may have caused a fault to slip. But now officials say that Ohio’s recent earthquakes were not related to wastewater injection, but could be related to fracking itself, which would be the first time that gas drilling — and not waste disposal — was linked directly to earthquakes.

A December, 2013 study from Southern Methodist University linked a string of 2009 and 2010 earthquakes in Texas to fracking wastewater injection. The Fort Worth area in Texas experienced more than 50 earthquakes in 2009 and 2010 — before 2008, none, never. According to a June, 2014,  article in USA Today, there have been more than 30 detectable earthquakes in the Fort Worth Basin since early November, 2013.  Residents and city officials suggest that oil and gas disposal wells are the likely culprits. The energy companies deny a direct link between the earthquakes and the wells, citing a lack of evidence. Area seismologists have actually recorded more than 300 quakes since December — many too small for human detection — all clustered around the area’s injection wells.  The larger quakes have cracked ceilings in homes and left gaping sinkholes in fields.

As the data continues to accumulate about the negative impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing on air, water, soil, and the structural integrity of the land beneath our feet, we need a moratorium on the development of HVHF operations, stringent regulations on existing operations, and rigorous, long-term studies about the effects of this practice on economies, environments, and human health.

Margaret Roberts, MFA was one of the founding members of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer (CRAAB!) and its Director for two years, before becoming the Program Coordinator and Director of Development. She was a founding member of the New York State Breast Cancer Network (NYSBCN) and sits on its Environmental Committee.  The first non-profit she started in 1995, Pen & Palette, offered creative art workshops for cancer survivors under its “Coping Through Creativity program.” From 2003 to 2005 the cancer survivors in this program wrote and produced a play about their experiences with cancer entitled, “Alive, Alive, Oh!” Margaret became involved in cancer awareness and advocacy after both of her sisters died from different forms of cancer; one sister (a non-smoker) had lung cancer and her other sister had breast cancer. As a primary caregiver, Margaret became intimately aware of the complexities of breast cancer, and the need for more support and education programs in her community. To advance education about the disease Margaret was the director, co-writer, co-researcher and graphic designer for the True Burden of Breast Cancer Risk Factors Project, a community-based program that educated women’s organizations and over 400 students at six colleges about risk factors for breast cancer, including new information about environmental connections to the disease. Margaret has received numerous grants and awards to advance her work.

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