Fracking, also called hydraulic fracturing, is a way to extract natural gas and oil from underground rock formations called shale. Shale rock is made up of very thin, brittle layers of compressed mud and clay. Fracking companies drill horizontal wells and then pump sand, water and a mixture of chemicals into them. This causes the shale to crack and release oil or natural gas.
Some experts say this drilling method has helped the US increase its energy supply, lower energy prices and create jobs. But it’s also possible that fracking sites could degrade air and water quality in nearby communities, raising concerns about potential effects on the environment and human health.
Researchers have linked fracking and related processes, called “unconventional natural gas development,” to higher chances of birth defects and certain types of cancer. A relationship does not prove cause and effect. But it does show a link that could pave the way for larger, more powerful studies that could help confirm or cast doubt on the earlier finding.
Here’s what we know so far about fracking’s links to the environment and health.
How can fracking pollute the air?
Several things that happen at or around drilling sites can cause toxic chemicals to be released into the local air. Some examples are:
- Combustion of additional natural gas
- Operating heavy machinery at well site
- Using diesel trucks to move things to and from a site
Also, the sand and chemicals that are used to break up shale, along with other chemicals that come with the natural gas, could get into the air and degrade its quality.
Fracking companies don’t always have to disclose what chemicals they use, so sometimes the amount of air pollution and the problems it can cause aren’t clear.
Research shows that some chemicals used in fracking can cause or increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
How can fracking pollute water?
It is sometimes possible for natural gas and chemicals used during fracking to leak through cracks in the shale and into an underground source of drinking water.
Some other ways water can also be contaminated are when:
- Fracking well not installed properly.
- Chemicals are spilled from trucks or tankers.
- The water used in the fracking process flows from the well.
It is not clear how common it is for water to become contaminated in these ways. And because different fracking sites use different chemical mixes, residents and researchers are often unsure about the specific health risks of living near a particular fracking well.
What are the health risks associated with fracking?
Some studies have linked living near fracking sites and unconventional natural gas development to higher chances of conditions such as:
That doesn’t mean you or your loved ones are guaranteed to get problems like these if you live near a fracking site.
Overall, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests more research is needed to determine how unconventional gas development affects the health of people who live in nearby communities.
Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council say they are urging state and federal agencies to limit fracking-related pollution and do better studies of possible health effects.
To find out if you live near a fracking site, you can download an app from Penn Medicine called Well Explorer. The university says its app can also show which chemicals are being used at a site and what the toxicity levels are. The nonprofit FracTracker Alliance also has an app that lets you check for nearby wells and send photos of nearby wells.
What are some health risks for workers at fracking sites?
Some of the risks are:
- Inhalation of sand particles used in the fracking process, which can cause lung disease
- Coming into contact with accidental chemical spills, which can lead to a number of health risks
- Exposure to high levels of toxic chemical compounds while working to contain water that flows from a fracking well. This has resulted in at least four worker deaths since 2010.
How can fracking affect a community?
Drilling activities, along with the arrival of a large workforce, can have consequences such as:
- More noise, light and traffic
- Greater burden on hospitals and roads
- Higher rates of crime and substance abuse
Some studies have linked problems like these to more stress and anxiety for people living near fracking sites.