Early life exposure to air and water pollutants used in unconventional oil and natural gas operations, e.g. fracking, has been shown to be linked with learning and neuropsychological deficits, neurodevelopmental disorders, and neurological birth defects, with potentially permanent damage to brain health.
In a new review published in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health, researchers determined that chemicals used in and associated with unconventional oil and natural gas (UOG) operations, which includes fracking, are potentially harmful to human health and especially potentially harmful to vulnerable populations, including infants and children. The study focused on five types of pollution commonly found near UOG sites—heavy metals, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, BTEX and endocrine disrupting compounds—and found that multiple pollutants found in the air and water near fracked oil and gas sites are linked to brain problems in children in existing health studies.
Fracking chemicals linked to ADHD in children
Some of these pollutant categories are linked with neural tube defects and neurodevelopmental effects such as impaired memory, intellectual function, learning and cognitive function. Additionally, some of these pollutants are associated with brain disorders, adverse neuropsychological effects, and behavioral effects including impulsivity, aggression, hyperactivity and ADHD.
In a previous review, published in Reviews on Environmental Health, researchers from the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), the University of Missouri and the Institute for Health and the Environment (University at Albany) provide evidence that exposure to chemicals associated with fracking during infancy, child and adulthood can result in serious reproductive health and development effects in humans.
Since the mid-to-late-2000s, unconventional oil and gas (UOG) techniques, including fracking, have expanded rapidly in the United States and other places across the globe. Every stage of the UOG lifecycle, from well construction to extraction, operations, transportation, and distribution can lead to air and water contamination. Residents near UOG operations can suffer from increased exposure to elevated concentrations of air and water pollutants.
Animals and residents suffering from neurological health problems
The scientific and medical communities are beginning to understand that UOG chemicals are likely to be harmful to environmental and human health. Published research focusing on the connection between UOG and neurodevelopmental and neurological health is limited, while no studies have focused exclusively on this health topic.
“This study is really the first comprehensive look at whether there is a risk for this type of harm from fracking,” Ellen Webb, co-author of the research from the Center for Environmental Health, a US-based non-profit organization told the Guardian.
Neurological health problems have been reported by residents and observed in animals and farm animals living close to UOG development in areas across the United States. Given the sensitivity of the developing brain and central nervous system, it is reasonable to conclude that young infants and children who live close to UOG and fracking sites and experience frequent exposure to these pollutants are at particularly high risk for brain problems and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Urgent need for stronger regulatory standards
More research is needed on this topic and the scientific literature examining the direct impact of UOG development on children is just starting to emerge, but since fracking and other UOG development has expanded rapidly in recent years, there is a dire need for stronger regulatory standards and more research to better understand how low levels and long term exposure from multiple drilling chemicals might affect people’s health.
Recommendations include setback distances of least one mile between drilling sites and buildings such as schools, hospitals and other spaces where infants and children might spend a substantial amount of time.
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