Hydraulic fracturing, commonly termed fracking, is a well stimulation technique used to mine natural gas and oil that has been surrounded by increasing controversy since the 1980s, with extensive research and debate into both the environmental and health risks causing widespread bans in the US. Now, a study published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society has found that fracking chemicals can interfere with male sex hormones and possibly cause adverse health effects.
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The study, led by researcher Phum Tachachartvanich, Ph.D., from the University of California, Davis in Davis, California, utilized a computer model to rank 60 hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in California based on the potential of each chemical to adversely affect androgen’s ability to bind with cells.
After the chemicals were ranked, researchers then measured the androgen binding activity in cell models made for each chemical.
The study was set to be presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting ENDO 2020, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, five hydraulic fracking chemicals were tested, and one chemical in particular, Genapol-X100, was found to significantly impair androgen binding activity.
Tachachartvanich said that this finding “suggests Genapol-X100 has endocrine-disrupting abilities.”
Androgens are key hormones in male sex development
Androgens are steroid hormones that regulate the production of male hormones such as testosterone and androsterone and circulate the bloodstream after being produced by the testes. Although androgens are present in both men and women, they are far more abundant in men, just as estrogen is found in much higher levels in women than in men.
Androgenic hormones peak during puberty, and stimulate the growth of muscles and bones and are responsible for male sexual development and secondary male sex characteristics such as the deepening of the voice during puberty and the growth of facial hair.
Tachachartvanich’s study found that this chemical commonly used in fracking can block testosterone’s effects, among other androgen hormones. He said:
“Possible adverse health outcomes associated with anti-androgen exposure are abnormal reproductive function, male infertility and disrupted testicular and prostate development.”
Endocrine disruption from fracking chemicals is a concern for “everyone”
There are a number of ways that the chemicals used in fracking, which are injected at high pressure into horizontal bore wells in order to break up rock in which valuable materials such as natural gas and petroleum are stored, contaminate the environment and come into contact with humans. This includes wastewater contaminating lakes and groundwater.
“The widespread use of fracking has led to concerns of potential negative impacts on both the environment and human health,” Tachachartvanich said.
An article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2016 discussing the importance of epidemiological studies focused on fracking stated that there are “serious concerns including its impact on climate change and the potential harm to the environment and human health,” and that there are “significant uncertainties about adverse health outcomes that may be associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing.”
It also draws attention to the chemicals used in the drilling and extraction process, saying that one of the most “critical” issues in fracking is the “management (storage, treatment and disposal) of water produced in the gas or oil extraction process.” It continues, “The flowback water contained thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals, the vast majority of which are not identified.”
Additionally, it reveals that an “undetermined amount” of the chemicals used in the drilling and extraction processes do not have “scientifically based maximum contaminant levels, which makes it difficult to assess their public health risks.”
Everyone should be concerned about fracking as the wastewater generated has potential endocrine-disrupting effects, which can adversely affect the general population."
Phum Tachachartvanich, Ph.D., University of California, Davis
EurekAlert! Fracking chemical may interfere with male sex hormone receptor. (2020). https://www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2020-03/tes-fcm032620.php
Finkel, M. L., Hays, J. (2016) Environmental and health impacts of ‘fracking’: why epidemiological studies are necessary. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, (70:3) 221-222. https://jech.bmj.com/content/70/3/221