A new study from the Center for Environmental Health adds to the growing body of evidence that unconventional oil and gas (UOG), which includes fracking, is harmful to human health and especially hazardous to vulnerable populations, including newborns and children.
During the fracking process, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is directed at high pressures into shale beds to release petroleum resources. This slurry involves the use of nearly 700 chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found.
The new research, published Wednesday in Reviews on Environmental Health, examined five particular air and water pollutants that are widely used in or byproducts of UOG development and operations—heavy metals, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrobcarbons, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes), and endocrine disrupting compounds.
"Every stage of the UOG lifecycle, from well construction to extraction, operations, transportation and distribution can lead to air and water contamination," the paper notes.
Dauntingly, the researchers found that early life exposure to these substances has been linked to potentially permanent learning and neuropsychological deficits, neurodevelopmental disorders and neurological birth defects.
"Given the profound sensitivity of the developing brain and central nervous system, it is reasonable to conclude that young children who experience frequent exposure to these pollutants are at particularly high risk for chronic neurological diseases."
This is the first literature review to focus explicitly on the effects of the UOG industry on the neurodevelopmental and neurological health of infants and children. In other words, this is the first time researchers have examined how children's brains are affected by living near fracking sites.
Ellen Webb of the Center for Environmental Health and lead author of the study explained to Environmental Health News that the research on children's health near oil and gas sites is "slowly emerging" but that "it's only reasonable to conclude that young children with frequent exposure to these pollutants would be at high risk for neurological diseases."
The authors warn that people living near such operations can suffer from increased exposure to elevated concentrations of air and water pollutants. About 17.6 million Americans live within one mile of an active oil or gas well, a separate study found.
The Center for Environmental Health research team suggested a setback of at least one mile between drilling sites and buildings such as schools, hospitals and other spaces where infants and children might spend a substantial amount of time. The researchers also recommended more research on how low levels of long term exposure from multiple drilling chemicals might affect people's health, mandatory testing of industrial chemicals used on sites, and more transparency of chemicals used in UOG.