Fracking, known technically as hydraulic fracturing, involves the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of chemical-laden water deep underground to crack rock and release oil and gas. Roughly 200 chemicals have been found in wastewater, groundwater and surface water in fracking-dense regions. Past research has reported elevated rates of health issues including acute lymphocytic leukemia and asthma attacks among residents in these areas.
The new study, conducted on mice, suggests that exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy may hinder particularly female offspring’s ability to ward off diseases, including multiple sclerosis.
“Our study reveals that there are links between early-life exposure to fracking-associated chemicals and damage to the immune system in mice,” said lead author Paige Lawrence, chair of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“This discovery opens up new avenues of research to identify, and someday prevent, possible adverse health effects in people living near fracking sites.”
The report was published Tuesday in the journal Toxicological Sciences.
Of the 200 fracking chemicals found in groundwater, 23 were recently connected to developmental and reproductive issues in mice. Co-author Susan Nagel, an associate professor of reproductive and perinatal research at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, classified these chemicals as endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with hormones and disturb hormone-controlled systems.
As the immune system is influenced significantly by hormones, the team tested the immune impact of these hazardous chemicals on mice. They added the chemicals to the drinking water of pregnant mice at levels close to those found in groundwater close to fracking sites.
“Our goal is to figure out if these chemicals in our water impact human health,” Lawrence said, “but we first need to know what specific aspects of health to look at, so this was a good place to start.”
Mouse pups – particularly females – who while in the womb were exposed to a mixture of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals had abnormal immune responses to multiple types of diseases, such as an allergic disease and a type of flu. The team found the mice were especially susceptible to a disease that mimics multiple sclerosis, developing symptoms far quicker than those that were not exposed to the chemicals.
These immune responses stem from a complex mosaic of immune cells, each serving specific and critical roles battling against infections, or preventing allergies or damage caused by unchecked immune responses. Some of these cells help fend off invaders, while others scale back an immune response once an infection is under control.
A healthy immune system requires a delicate balance of all of these cells – which fracking chemicals appear to disrupt.
The team will continue to examine how fracking chemicals affect the developing system in order to understand how they impact human health.
The study was funded by the University of Rochester Provost’s Office, the National Institutes of Health, the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Morris Foundation.