Apr. 4, 2012
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has generated widespread media attention this year. The process, which injects water and chemicals into the ground to release "natural" gas and oil from shale bedrock, has been shown to contribute significantly to air and water pollution and has even been linked to earthquakes. But little has been reported on the ways in which fracking may have unique impacts on women. Chemicals used in fracking have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive health problems and there have been reports of rises in crimes against women in some fracking "boom" towns, which have attracted itinerant workers with few ties to the community.
Not only do the chemical cocktail inserted into the ground been shown to contaminate groundwater and drinking water, but fracking fluid also picks up toxins on its trip down to the bedrock and back up again that had previously been safely locked away underground. Chemicals linked to cancer are present in nearly all of the steps of extraction -- in the fracking fluids, the release of radioactive and other hazardous materials from the shale, and in transportation and drilling related air pollution and contaminated water disposal.
Some reports indicate that more than 25 percent of the chemicals used in natural gas operations have been linked to cancer or mutations, although companies like Haliburton have lobbied hard to keep the public in the dark about the exact formula of fracking fluids. According to the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce, fracking companies used 95 products containing 13 different known and suspected carcinogens between 2005 and 2009 as part of the fracking fluid that is injected in the ground. These include naphthalene, benzene, and acrylamide. Benzene, which the U.S. EPA has classified as a Group A, human carcinogen, is released in the fracking process through air pollution and in the water contaminated by the drilling process. The Institute of Medicine released a report in December 2011 that links breast cancer to exposure to benzene.
Up to thirty-seven percent of chemicals in fracking fluids have been identified as endocrine-disruptors -- chemicals that have potential adverse developmental and reproductive effects. According to the U.S. EPA, exposure to these types of chemicals has also been implicated in breast cancer.
Emerging data points to a problem requiring more study. In the six counties in Texas which have seen the most concentrated gas drilling, breast cancer rates have risen significantly, while over the same period the rates for this kind of cancer have declined elsewhere in the state. Similarly, in western New York, where traditional gas drilling processes have been used for decades before hydrofracking came along, has been practiced for nearly two centuries, rural counties with historically intensive gas industry activity show consistently higher cancer death rates (PDF) than rural counties without drilling activity. For women, this includes breast, cervix, colon, endocrine glands, larynx, ovary, rectal, uterine, and other cancers.
Certain compounds, such as toluene, that are released as gas at the wellhead and also found in water contaminated by fracking have the potential to harm to pregnant women or women wishing to become pregnant. According to the U.S. EPA, studies have shown that toluene can cause an assortment of developmental disorders in children born to pregnant women that have been exposed to toulene. Pregnant women also carry an increase risk of spontaneous abortion from exposure to toluene. Wyoming failed to meet federal standards for air quality due to fumes containing toluene and benzene in 2009.
Sandra Steingraber, an acclaimed ecologist and author of "Raising Elijah" -- a book on how to raise a child in an age of environmental hazards, takes the strong stand that fracking violates a woman's reproductive rights. "If you want to plan a pregnancy and someone else's chemicals sabotage that -- it's a violation of your rights as a woman to have agency over your own reproductive destiny," she said.