A new study out of the University of Missouri that used Garfield County as its primary testing ground links chemicals tied to natural gas drilling activities with endocrine system disruptions in the human body.
The study was released Monday by a team of researchers, including Susan Nagel, head of the Endocrine Disruptors Group and assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at MU.
It found that both surface and groundwater samples taken from test sites in Garfield County that had “known natural gas drilling incidents,” such as spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids, had greater levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) than samples taken in areas devoid of drilling.
The researchers chose Garfield County for their primary samples because it is home to more than 10,000 active natural gas wells.
Water samples were taken in September 2010 from ground and surface sources, including the Colorado River, in five sites with between 43 and 136 natural gas wells within one mile, and where a spill or other reported incident had been reported within six years.
Reference samples were taken from other areas in the county that have little drilling, and from nondrilling areas in Missouri for comparison.
“In the present study, we identified EDC activity of several individual chemical components used in natural gas operations that may contribute to the activity that we measured in water,” Nagel and the other researchers wrote in the report.
The report concludes that most water samples from sites with known drilling-related incidents in the region exhibited more chemicals known to impact human sex hormone activity than the water samples collected from the other control sites.
The study measured 12 chemicals used in drilling operations, included those associated with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process involving the mixture of sand, water and chemicals to release natural gas from deep in the ground.
The findings “suggest that natural gas drilling operations may result in elevated EDC activity in ground and surface water,” the researchers wrote in the report.
Nagel told MedPage Today, an online medical journal, after the report was released that the study is the first of its kind to show a connection between natural gas drilling activities and EDCs.
She also said more comprehensive sampling needs to be done at drilling sites in Garfield County to confirm the findings of the study.
One industry spokesman, David Ludlam, director of the Western Slope chapter of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, pointed to the limitations identified in the study itself, including “that no identification of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing were in the tested water.”
That’s “hugely important for context,” Ludlam said.
“These type of studies are one of the reasons western Colorado’s natural gas industry so strongly supported Colorado’s comprehensive groundwater sampling program to establish baselines around the state for water quality before and after drilling,” he said. “We also agree with the National Institute of Environmental Health Science and their revelation that EDCs are in many household and agricultural products used each and every day, making the sources numerous.”
Ludlam also noted the MU study’s link to “one of the nations’ most renowned anti-drilling activists,” which he said “leaves wide space for questioning the project’s claims and conclusions.”
He was referring to Theo Colborn, a gas industry critic from Paonia who is also an endocrinologist and president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange.
Colborn acknowledged that she met Nagel in the mid-1990s and has encouraged her to do more research into the impacts of drilling on human hormone health. But she said she was not directly involved with the study.
Colborn hailed the study as an important breakthrough in research about the impact of chemicals used not only by the natural gas industry, but other industry as well, on human health.
“This is a very important paper, and it just might make people wake up to the fact that the only laws we have in place to protect us use very crude health end points,” Colborn said of measures to protect humans from high doses of chemicals that can cause serious disease, birth defects or death.
“There are a lot of other health effects that we have to live with that are certainly annoying and that need to be taken into account,” she said.
Because of an exemption for fracking operations from regulatory acts such as the Clean Water Act, the EPA can’t even address it, said Colborn.
She said it’s also important not to refer to Nagel’s work as a “fracking study” per se, but rather one that addresses the impacts of oil and gas development beyond just the fracking phase of the process.