A review of studies about the health effects of chemicals used in fracking calls for testing and monitoring of humans and animals near such "unconventional" oil and gas operations. Among the Wyoming communities affected by nearby industrialization is Pinedale, close to the Pinedale Anticline gas field. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Increasing amounts of chemical pollutants released from oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, chemicals that are known to debilitate sexual development and function, require urgent monitoring of neighbors and animals, a new paper says.

The oil and gas sites and operations use, leak, and emit chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and formaldehyde, along with the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium and lead, the paper says. Known in laboratory and real-life studies to be associated with or affect human health, they’re flushed into the environment in increasing amounts, the paper states.

Exposure to those chemicals can reduce semen quality, cause chromosomal abnormalities in sperm and reduce testosterone in men, the paper says. Among women, effects include longer and abnormal menstrual periods, premature menopause, difficulty becoming pregnant, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

“What we found is that there’s a real need to be investigating the potential harm,” co-author Ellen Webb said. “The way to do that is comprehensive epidemiological and biological monitoring.”

The international journal Reviews on Environmental Health published “Developmental and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas operations” today. The 12-page paper reviews scientific literature on the chemicals and industry and makes the recommendations for testing, among other things.

Industry says it’s well-regulated

Oil and gas developments, like the Jonah Field outside Pinedale, are spreading fracking operations and their chemicals and exposing more people to potential serious health problems, a new review says. Industry says it is well-regulated, but the paper's authors call for testing and monitoring of nearby communities. (Ecoflight Ñ click to enlarge)
Oil and gas developments, like the Jonah Field outside Pinedale, are spreading fracking operations and their chemicals and exposing more people to potential serious health problems, a new review says. Industry says it is well-regulated, but the paper’s authors call for testing and monitoring of nearby communities. (EcoFlight — click to enlarge)

An industry representative disagreed.

The oil and gas industry is well-regulated and neighbors to industrial sites don’t need to be monitored said Petroleum Association of Wyoming Vice President John Robitaille. He had not seen the paper when interviewed Thursday; it was embargoed until its publication date Friday.

He made his industry’s case regarding emissions and testing.

“We are extensively regulated when it comes to hydraulic fracturing (through the) Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission,” he said. “We have very specific, very detailed rules on how to drill and complete to make sure (what) we have in the borehole does not escape.

“There’s a tremendous amounts of safeguards,” he said. “I don’t know what more we can do.”

Proliferation of hydraulic fracturing — known also as fracking and also as “unconventional oil and gas operations” — prompted the review.

Chemicals that are used in fracking have been shown in laboratories to harm the human reproductive system and fetus and child development. They have been associated with some of those maladies in the real world, the paper says.

The article stops short of saying or proving the oil patch causes widespread shocking health problems. It did cite two studies that associated real-world problems with nearby industry, however.

“There has been and continues to be a dramatic expansion of (unconventional oil and gas) operations,” the paper says. “Spills, leaks and discharges of UOG wastewater are common … chemicals have been measured in air and water near operations … chemicals have been directly linked with adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes in laboratory studies … chemicals have been associated with adverse human reproductive and developmental health outcomes in epidemiological studies.”

In addition to the effects on men and women, the chemicals can harm or kill children and fetuses, the paper said. The chemicals cause low birth weight, premature births and birth defects, including deformed penises and missing testicles. Exposed children can suffer developmental problems, including delayed sexual development.

“Living within 10 miles of a natural gas well was associated with increased risk of congenital heart and neural tube defects,” in a Colorado study, the paper said. The Colorado study “Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado” is available here.

Anecdotal reports from Vernal, Utah, show “an unusually high rate of miscarriages and stillbirths,” the paper says. Oil and gas development occurs nearby. “The rapid rise in unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) operations that combine directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) increases the opportunity for air and water pollution from these processes, with over 15 million Americans living within one mile of UOG operations,” the paper says.

Call for testing, monitoring people

Webb’s review calls for more information, now.

“Taken together, there is an urgent need for … biomonitoring of human, domestic and wild animals for these chemicals … and … systematic and comprehensive epidemiological studies to examine the potential for human harm,” Webb and her co-authors wrote.

That means initiating a program that measured the “body burden” of chemicals in a person. Animals would be included.

“It would have to be a carefully designed study,” Webb said.

Petroleum representative Robitaille said the amount of chemicals used in fracking operations are miniscule. Ninety-nine percent of fracking fluid is water and sand, he said.

“If people would like to get themselves tested, who am I to say they shouldn’t do that,” he said. But, “I don’t see a need for it at all.”

Webb offered advice to residents of Boulder, near oil and gas operations in Sublette County, and similar areas.

“Anywhere where there is unconventional oil and gas operations and where we have this expanding, communities are likely to be at risk from chemical exposure,” she said. “People are right to be concerned about what is in their backyards.”

The Webb paper

WyoFile articles:
Tempest buffets new air quality rules for Sublette County; Dec. 2, 2014
30 years of data show wilderness water pollution; Nov. 25, 2014
Sublette leak spilled 21,000 gallons of produced water; Nov. 12, 2014
Study finds toxins, cancer-causing air pollution at oil, gas wells; Oct. 30, 2014

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Great article Angus. I’m looking forward to the results of the mule deer study you covered as well . SO glad these issues are coming up in WY where the extraction industries are operating on a level there and elsewhere in the Great Basin that citizens of other states cannot begin to fathom. However fraction and now tar sands extraction are going on throughout the US. The results of the studies done in WY will have far reaching implications throughout the US. I sincerely hope that they can continue and will not be squashed by the behemoth extraction monster.

    Kerry O’Brien

  2. That’ right…so miniscule wildlife died and my rescue cat from the Jonah had half her hair burned off from a chemical spill.
    Sandra Goodwin
    Boulder. WY