Fracking Chemicals May Impact Brain Development in Young Children

As the fracking industry expands in the U.S., Europe and the UK, so too does the list of concerns about the industry’s human health and environmental impacts. This month, a new raft of independent studies raises fresh concerns, including potential effects on infant health.

Researchers from the Center for Environmental Health examined how unconventional oil and gas  — UOG — techniques may contribute to health concerns across sites in the United States, publishing their findings in the journal “Reviews on Environmental Health.”

In fracking and other so-called UOG processes, a concoction of water, sand and a host of chemicals is channeled at high pressure directly into shale beds to prompt the release of petroleum. Environmental health advocates have long criticized U.S. regulations for being too lax, as endocrine disruptors and other toxic chemicals compose part of that cocktail. But the industry insists that the risk of exposure for people living near fracking sites is so low that it doesn’t pose a health concern.

And it seems that argument has convinced many politicians. Even so, concern about the wider environmental impacts such as seismic activity and water course changes have persisted. Some researchers maintain that it may be premature to dismiss health concerns, particularly when it comes to infant health.

This review looked at the presence of five major pollutants that are routinely found at fracking sites: heavy metals, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrobcarbons, BTEX and endocrine disrupting compounds.

Individually, all of these substances are classed as potentially hazardous to human health. For example, particulate matter can cause cancer, neurological problems and lower intelligence in children whose mothers faced high exposure.

This review aimed to highlight the potential hazards of these substances and to explore what long-term exposure might mean for infants.

The researchers note in the paper’s introduction:

There is ample evidence that environmental toxicants can cause neurodevelopmental problems. Developmental neurotoxicity has been called a “global silent pandemic” – “silent” because the “brain draining” impacts of early life exposure to neurotoxicants are often subtle and subclinical, which can make them hard to detect (71), (72), (73). Another aspect of this “silent pandemic” is the lack of safety standards set by regulatory authorities on virtually any of the 85,000+ chemicals that we are exposed to daily, as well as the limited attention clinicians and academic researchers have paid to the “brain drain” caused by neurotoxicity in early life (74). 

In conducting this review, researchers examined three major information sources: studies that look at air and water quality in UOG sites, documented health risks and symptoms resulting from pollutants known to be part of UOG process and long-term health impacts from early life exposure to those UOG-associated chemicals.

As with any scientific study, this research had several limitations. The researchers did not use a quality control assessment to collect data, though the bulk of this information was gleaned from peer reviewed materials. Where they used so-called “grey” information in the form of non-reviewed reports, they have marked that material.

Additionally, researchers supplemented their data with information from animal studies when human health outcomes were not well studied or where they found gaps in the data — for example, in the case of endocrine disruption.

This study, therefore, provides a review of available information; it does not seek to unlock new information or draw firm conclusions. Essentially, the research attempts to gauge the potential risk for health problems based on existing findings.

Researchers found that the recognized pollutants came from a number of sources during the UOG — fracking, in this case — process. The procedure itself, as well as associated operations like transportation, posed threats to the local environment, largely in the form of leaks.

The research specifically notes that, in some cases, air and water samples from fracking sites contained particulate matter, manganese and benzene content that appeared higher than U.S. guidelines allow. Manganese, for example, isn’t likely to be a pressing concern for the general public, as diffusion rates will likely reduce concentrations far below the safety limit. However, manganese circulates in our blood and can impact a developing fetus.

The researchers note, “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.”

That might be a stretch, but it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that this threat should factor into policymaking. 

The report then makes the case that UOG policy doesn’t consider long-term low yield exposure, despite the fact that these highlighted substances are known to be health concerns. They also emphasize that potential impacts on neurological function and IQ haven’t been well studies.

Previous research has indeed linked particulate matter to lower IQ in urban area like New York City, and it is often the poor who are at greatest risk.

The upshot of all these findings is that researchers have made the case for focusing new attention on these concerns. They recommend at least a mile of distance “between drilling facility lines and the property line of occupied dwellings such as schools, hospitals and other spaces where infants and children might spend a substantial amount of time.”

They also advocate for additional research into long-term chronic impacts of exposure on neurological development in children.

Industry voices have been quick to dismiss this study as a rehash of old data that tells us nothing new, but environmental groups have welcomed this review for drawing media attention to an under-researched area of concern that could help us keep infants — and all children — healthy and safe.

Photo Credit: Lock the Gate Alliance/Flickr


Marie W
Marie W10 months ago

Thanks for the article

Jennifer H
Jennifer Habout a year ago

It should be obvious that chemicals can and will affect the brain but with this government -- they don't care.

Kathryn I
Kathryn Iabout a year ago

Just more contamination and pollution to our Planet! Certainly makes it understandable how and why brain development could be negatively effected.

cristiano t
cristiano torchioabout a year ago

stop contaminating the planet

Mike R
Mike Rabout a year ago

It impacts us all and our environment plus all animal life.

Kelsey S
Kelsey Sabout a year ago


Toni W
Toni Wabout a year ago


Toni W
Toni Wabout a year ago


Carl R
Carl Rabout a year ago


Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a year ago

No surprise here.