Fracking, also called hydraulic fracturing, is a way to get natural gas and oil from underground rock formations called shale. Shale rock is made of many thin, fragile layers of compressed mud and clay. Fracking companies drill horizontal wells, and then they force sand, water, and a mix of chemicals into them. That makes the shale crack and release oil or natural gas.
Some experts say this drilling method has helped the U.S. boost its energy supply, lower energy prices, and create jobs. But it’s also possible for fracking sites to worsen the air and water quality of nearby communities, raising concerns about potential effects on the environment and people’s health.
Researchers have linked fracking and related processes, called “unconventional natural gas development,” to higher odds for birth defects and certain types of cancer. A link doesn’t prove cause and effect. But it shows a connection that can pave the way for bigger, stronger studies that could help confirm or cast doubt on the earlier finding.
Here’s what we know so far about fracking’s connections 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:
- Burning off extra natural gas
- Running heavy machinery at the well site
- Using diesel trucks to move things to and from a site
Also, the sand and chemicals that are used to crack shale, along with other chemicals that come up with the natural gas, could possibly get into the air and worsen its quality.
Fracking companies don’t always have to reveal what chemicals they use, so sometimes the amount of air pollution and the problems it can cause aren’t clear.
Research shows that certain chemicals used for fracking may cause or raise the risk for certain types of cancer.
How Can Fracking Contaminate Water?
Sometimes it might be possible for natural gas and chemicals used during fracking to leak through cracks in the shale and get into an underground source of drinking water.
Some other ways that water also can get contaminated are when:
- A fracking well isn’t installed correctly.
- Chemicals spill from trucks or tanks.
- Water used in the fracking process flows out of the well.
It’s not clear how common it is for water to get polluted 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 certain fracking well.
What Health Risks Is Fracking Linked To?
Some studies have tied living near fracking and unconventional natural gas development sites to higher chances for conditions like:
- Premature births
- Low birth weight
- Birth defects
- Heart-related problems
- Elderly people dying sooner
- Certain types of cancer, like lymphoma and childhood leukemia
This doesn’t mean you or your loved ones are guaranteed to get problems like these if you live near a fracking site.
In general, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggests that more research is needed to find out how unconventional gas development affects the health of people who live in nearby communities.
In the meantime, environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council say they’re pushing state and federal agencies to limit fracking-related pollution and do higher-quality studies on the 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 also can show which chemicals are 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 submit photos of nearby drilling.
What Are Some Health Risks for Workers at Fracking Sites?
A few of the risks are:
- Breathing in particles of sand used in the fracking process, which can cause lung diseases
- Coming into contact with accidental chemical spills, which could lead to a range of health risks
- Getting exposed to high levels of toxic chemical compounds while working to contain the water that flows out of a fracking well. This has led to at least four worker deaths since 2010.
How Might Fracking Impact a Community?
Activities tied to drilling, along with the arrival of a large workforce, could have consequences like:
- More noise, light, and traffic
- Bigger burden on hospitals and roads
- Higher rates of crime and substance abuse
Some studies link issues like these to more stress and worry for people living near fracking sites.