Fracking Chemicals A Serious Hazard for Children

A new study makes it painfully clear precisely how dangerous fracking is for kids.

Fracking is just one of many examples of unchecked corporate greed in action, resulting in destroyed lands; poisoning of the environment; ruptured ecosystems; and long-term destruction of plants, birds, animals and insects. Scientists have studied those impacts in as many as 1,000 different studies of the practice, which uses a blend of chemical and fluid injections to gain access to precious petrochemicals – at a horrendous cost. 

The latest impact now understood far better is damage to the brain development of children.

The new study, led by Ellen Webb of the Center for Environmental Health, looked at the air and water near fracked oil and gas sites. Within those sites it focused on the following categories of pollutants present there:

  • heavy metals, with arsenic and manganese being major contributors
  • particulate matter
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • BTEX, the chemical mix of benzene, toluene, ethyl­benzene and xylene
  • endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

Part of the reason for the current research was that numerous studies cited neurological health problems observed in residents, livestock and companion animals near fracking areas. The analysis also cited a previous joint study by Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania that noted hospitalization rates were higher in regions close to such sites.

One of the first indications of a causal link between infant neurological development and fracking was identified in a 2014 research effort entitled “Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado.” It looked at 124,842 births occurring between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado. After their analysis, the researchers concluded there was “a potential association between the density of natural gas wells within a 16-kilometer radius of a residence and neural tube defects in infants.”For the pollutants cited in the study’s report, the authors give a detailed review of the potential harm to children.

Heavy metals. Arsenic inhibits neurodevelopment and specifically neuron growth; can cause memory deficits, attention problems and lower IQ; and “impairs self-regulation in newborns.” Manganese causes psychomotor problems (especially as a result of prenatal exposure); contributes to lower IQs and memory problems in verbal, visual and “working” memory after drinking-water exposure; and has been linked to “conduct problems, hyperactivity and aggressive behavior in children prenatally exposed via drinking water.”

Particulate matter. In early development stages, these contaminants can modify cellular processes in the brain and spinal cord, with serious impacts on synaptic connections needed for learning and memory. Cognition problems can be common. Auditory processing, balance and regulation of the autonomic systems are also at risk. Such materials can also impact the presence of autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. According to the authors, these can contribute to “increased rates of neural tube defects from maternal exposure … during pregnancy;” reduced birth weights; reduced verbal and full-scale IQ scores; and an “increased risk of ADHD diagnoses and other childhood psychopathologies.” Increased anxiety, depression and inattention were noted. Even Tourette’s syndrome has been linked to these chemicals.

BTEX. This group of chemicals has been connected to a variety of neurological disorders, so much so that their early use in the mass-electronics manufacturing industry is now more actively monitored to avoid direct exposure to living things. Toluene exposure prior to birth has been tied to development delays, cerebellar problems and language problems. Toluene can also increase the likelihood of hyperactivity disorders. Motor function is also at risk. Long term, benzene and toluene can affect spatial learning and memory. Xylene has been shown to contribute to tremors, altered vision and numbness.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals. Once again, prenatal exposure to these chemicals is particularly harmful and can damage brain development and cause permanent behavioral problems. These chemicals have been linked to learning challenges and difficulties with memory, and they have also been linked to social interaction problems, “increased aggression and anxiety,” ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.

For those interested in further details of the names of chemicals used in fracking, the industry’s own FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry provides a good current summary of the more common materials used. It is sobering, starting with the highly dangerous hydrochloric acid at the top, and includes multiple other acids, petrochemicals used to break up the fracking region so the oil sought after is more easily removed and heavy salts. Even for those in this group that are not directly toxic in and of themselves, their presence can permanently affect the ecosystems of the surrounding lands and waterways and the air above.

The study notes that water and air pollution released into the environment is a primary cause of the chemical and particulate pollutants getting close to children and pregnant women in the regions near where fracking takes place. The movement of materials to legal landfills, which then leach further into the environment, are at issue.

Since about 10 years ago, fracking and other advanced oil and gas extraction techniques began spreading rapidly throughout the United States. The FracTracker Alliance, an organization that admittedly is an advocate organization lobbying for the use of renewable energy, has estimated that the United States already has as many as 1.7 million active oil and gas wells.

Further, the potential impacts of these chemicals are not limited just to regions near the fracking areas themselves. As Traveling Minds reported in its September 2017 article “Oil Wastewater Is Being Used to Irrigate California Crops,” oil companies in California are, in fact, recycling wastewater from the regions where they are doing their prospecting in the state, which includes where fracking goes on. According to an estimate from the Environmental Working Group, that wastewater, which is laced with chemicals from fracking and other activities, is now being used for irrigation of over 100,000 acres of food crops in California’s Central Valley.

The researchers of this particular study, which focuses on what is present near fracking areas and the dangers of those contaminants for children, make it clear that it is only a matter of time before long-term proven damage is clear. As Ellen Webb, the lead author of the study said, “It’s only reasonable to conclude that young children with frequent exposure to these pollutants would be at high risk for neurological diseases.”The researchers recommend more specific study of exact statistics of areas close to the fracking sites but also caution that we cannot afford to wait for the results to roll in before we do something about the problem. They specifically recommend increasing the distance between where children may be present – either at home, in schools or in hospitals, for example – and where the fracking activities are taking place by at least one mile.

Unfortunately, new regulations are currently under development by the Trump administration to allow fracking in previously protected public lands used mostly in the past for recreational purposes. Since this would also contribute to potential exposure to chemicals, those moves also need to be cataloged as part of the potential exposure problem for all.

The researchers also recommend more detailed analysis on the impacts of the specific fracking chemicals now in use and their potential impacts on babies in utero, children and families.

Finally, the researchers also recommend pushing state and federal regulators to actively consider the impacts of such chemicals on the environment. That seems unlikely at the federal level, given the current state of the Environmental Protection Agency, but perhaps more activist work in the states may make a difference in putting stiffer local protections in place.

Parents who live in areas where fracking is taking place are urged to take action to protect the health of their children.