These days, fracking seems to be wreaking havoc all over the news, not to mention the planet. A recent study found that fracking caused over 70 small earthquakes in Ohio in March 2014, including one that was large enough to be felt in nearby towns. And another has linked fracking to potential health risks, such as infertility and miscarriages in pregnant women and birth defects in their children.
The process of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals into shale rock within the earth to break it up in order to release trapped oil and gas. Its practice in the US has significantly boosted domestic oil production, has driven down gas prices, and offers gas security to the US and Canada for an estimated 100 years.
Fracking has revolutionized the energy industry, but certainly not without environmental concerns. In Poland Township, OH, earthquakes never used to happen, but since fracking began in the area, it has seen 77 earthquakes. They were so small that most went unnoticed by the township’s inhabitants, but when the fracking stopped, so did the quakes. A study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America compared the timing of the earthquakes in the town to the hydraulic fracturing operations, as well as the earthquakes’ epicenters to the locations of the fracking wells. The data show that a relatively small portion of the fracking operation was indeed responsible for the earthquakes in Poland Township. The study’s findings also show that fracking has the potential to trigger larger-magnitude earthquakes, as a magnitude 3 quake was felt by the town’s inhabitants, the largest earthquake ever known to be caused by hydraulic fracturing.
Researchers say, however, that there is no need for alarm over fracking-induced earthquakes. “People in areas with ongoing hydraulic fracturing should not panic about induced earthquakes,” says Robert Skoumal, a seismologist at Miami University and one of the researchers behind the study. “The chances that hydraulic fracturing operation will induce felt seismicity is rare.” Since the earthquake, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has promised to uphold stringent regulations aimed at reducing future induced earthquakes.
But that’s not the end of fracking’s questionable effects. Another study published in Reviews on Environmental Health links fracking with a number of developmental and reproductive health risks to those exposed to toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive materials in the process’s wake. The studies have found that fracking development can be poisonous by releasing potent toxins into the air and water around fracking, drilling, well, flaring, and compression sites. The toxins include volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and formaldehyde, heavy metals like cadmium and lead, and certain naturally occurring radioactive materials.
Ellen Webb, the study’s lead author and an energy program associate at the Center for Environmental Health, and her team reviewed more than 150 papers from 1970 to 2014 that analyzed the toxins and how they affect humans and animals. One study found a higher rate of birth defects within 10 miles of natural gas wells in rural Colorado. Another paper found that women who were exposed to one of the toxins, toluene, had unusual menstrual cycles and were unable to conceive. “Children, developing fetuses, they’re especially vulnerable to environmental factors,” Webb says. “We really need to be concerned about the impacts for these future generations.”
Industry advocates have fought against many of the health studies, dismissing them as “scientifically dubious,” but, according to Webb, one thing is certain: “People really near unconventional oil and gas and fracking sites and those who work in the fracking industry have the right to know the chemicals that are being used that may pose health threats, especially to vulnerable populations like women and children,” she says. “More studies need to be done, and biomonitoring needs to be done, assessing the body burden of chemicals.”
- Duhaime-Ross A. Fracking in Ohio triggered an earthquake so big you could feel it. The Verge website. January 5, 2014. http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/5/7495823/fracking-felt-earthquake-ohio-hydraulic-fracturing.
- Neuhauser A. Study links fracking to infertility, miscarriages, birth defects. U.S. News website. December 5, 2015. http://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/energy-of-tomorrow/articles/2014/12/05/fracking-linked-to-infertility-miscarriages-birth-defects.
- Oskin B. Fracking led to Ohio earthquakes. Live Science website. January 5, 2015. http://www.livescience.com/49326-fracking-caused-ohio-earthquakes.html.
- Shukman D. What is fracking and why is it controversial? BBC News website. June 27, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401.