Hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and a slew of other health problems have been found in water samples collected at and near hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," sites in Colorado, according to a new study published in the journal Endocrinology this week.
Researchers say they found elevated levels of these chemicals -- known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) -- in surface water and groundwater samples collected in the state's Garfield County, a fracking hotspot with more than 10,000 natural gas wells.
Water samples taken from the Colorado River, a drainage basin for the region, were also found to have significantly higher-than-normal levels of EDCs, the researchers said.
EDCs, which have the ability to interfere with normal hormone action, have been linked to a number of health issues. Last year, the World Health Organization issued a report highlighting the health risks associated with the chemicals, including cancer, infertility and impaired neural and immune function. Previous studies have also suggested that EDCs may have adverse effects on the reproductive system in both women and men.
"With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure," Susan Nagel, a veteran endocrinologist at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. Nagel was the lead author of the recent study on fracking and EDCs.
In 2010 and again in 2012, Nagel and a team of researchers collected several water samples at five natural gas sites in Garfield County, where fracking wastewater spills are known to have occurred in the last few years. The researchers then tested the samples for four different classes of EDCs. "Of the 39 unique water samples, 89 percent, 41 percent, 12 percent, and 46 percent exhibited estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, androgenic, and anti-androgenic activities, respectively," the report says. The team also gathered water samples from the Colorado river, as well as from areas in Garfield County that are located a significant distance away from natural gas wells. Other samples came from an area in Missouri where there is no fracking.
The researchers said water samples collected from the spill sites and the Colorado river had significantly higher levels of EDCs than those gathered from the control sites in Garden County and Missouri.
Water can contain small amounts of estrogenic substances naturally. However, "Nagel said that although estrogenic substances can be found naturally occurring in water, she did not know of similar sources of anti-estrogenic or anti-androgenic chemicals," the Times reports.
Troublingly, Nagel told The Huffington Post that the people living in the areas of Garfield County where the samples were taken all primarily get their water from local wells. This means that some residents in the area may very well be consuming water laden with these higher levels of EDCs.
"This is a canary in a coal mine that we need to pay attention to," Nagel told the HuffPost of the findings. "And it is absolutely a cause for concern."
Nagel added, however, that more research needs to be conducted to confirm the link between the EDCs found in the samples and fracking.
In their study, the researchers did not test their samples for specific fracking chemicals. Nagel said that a similar study should be conducted again, but with a larger sample size.
Fracking is a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are blasted underground to break apart rock and release oil and gas. "The process is exempt from some regulations that are part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and energy companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they use if they consider that information a trade secret," the Times writes.
In 2011, however, a Congressional report revealed a list of some 750 chemicals and compounds that are used for fracking. A ProPublica report said at the time that the list includes "29 chemicals that are either known or possible carcinogens or are regulated by the federal government because of other risks to human health."
Nagel told the HuffPost that researchers have since found more than 100 known or suspected EDCs in this list, as well.
With billions of dollars on the line, fracking -- and its impact on the environment and public health -- has been a contentious and controversial issue for years. Gas and oil lobbyists maintain that the practice is environmentally sound and perfectly safe (an industry lobbyist told the Times that Nagel's study was "inflammatory"), while environmental groups including Food and Water Watch and the Sierra Club have continued to sound the alarm on fracking's possible effects on our health and that of our planet.
Part of the problem is that studies looking into fracking's effects on public health remain inconclusive and preliminary. Still, there has been no shortage of anecdotal evidence of fracking's impact.
Earlier this year, for instance, it was reported that residents in Bokoshe, Okla., had filed a class-action suit against gas companies that had been fracking in the area. Oklahoma's News 6 reported at the time that "hundreds of millions of gallons" of fracking wastewater had been discharged at Bokoshe. Residents say this activity has triggered a spate of health issues, including cancer, in the town.