Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Potential Environmental Contamination and Recommendations to Assess Complex Environmental Mixtures

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Potential Environmental Contamination and Recommendations to Assess Complex Environmental Mixtures

Article excerpt


A novel source of human and animal exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) is through their use in oil and gas drilling operations. EDCs are exogenous compounds that can disrupt both development and normal hormone action either directly, by interacting with hormone receptors as agonists/ antagonists, or indirectly by, for example, altering endogenous hormone concentrations, delivery to receptors, modulation of endogenous hormone responses, enzyme activities, or other mechanisms (Bergman et al. 2013; Diamanti-Kandarakis et al. 2009; Zoeller et al. 2014). Importantly, oil and gas operation chemicals have been shown to act through both direct and indirect mechanisms (Andric et al. 2006; Kassotis et al. 2014; Knag et al. 2013; Thomas and Budiantara 1995). EDCs can exhibit effects at extremely low, environmentally relevant concentrations, particularly during sensitive windows when exposure can alter normal development and result in adverse health outcomes during adulthood (Vandenberg 2014; Vandenberg et al. 2012; vom Saal et al. 2007; Welshons et al. 2003). Although chemicals used in and produced by oil and gas operations include EDCs, carcinogens, radioactive compounds, and other toxicants, herein, we will focus on the unique issues posed by their endocrine-disrupting activities.

In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals, and millions of kilograms of suspended solids are injected into the ground under high pressure. Hydraulic fracturing serves to fracture the shale or coal bed layer and release trapped natural gas or oil, allowing for increased well production. Although hydraulic fracturing technologies have been developed over the last 65 years, they have only recently been combined with horizontal drilling to unlock vast new oil and gas reserves around the world that were previously deemed either inaccessible or unprofitable (Waxman et al. 2011; Wiseman 2008). Chemicals are added throughout the entire production process (including drilling, fracturing, and through closure) for a number of reasons (Table 1) (Deutch et al. 2011; Riedl et al. 2013; Waxman et al. 2011). In total, approximately 1,000 chemicals are known to be used throughout the process [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2015; Waxman et al. 2011].

Following the initial injection into the well to generate fractures, a portion of the injected volume returns to the surface immediately; this fluid is known as "flow-back." The remaining fluids either permeate the shale or coal bed formation and/or return to the surface over the life of the producing well; this fluid is known as "produced water." Both types of wastewater can contain fracturing fluids, naturally occurring salts, radioactive materials, heavy metals, and other chemicals from the shale formation such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, alkenes, alkanes, and other volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (Deutch et al. 2011; Fontenot et al. 2013; Harkness et al. 2015; Harvey et al. 1984; Maule et al. 2013; Warner et al. 2012). Wastewater is disposed of via injection wells, open evaporation pits, landfills, or treatment plants; through on-site burial; by being spread over road or fields; and/ or by being treated and reused in future hydraulic fracturing operations (Deutch et al. 2011; Gilmore et al. 2014; Lee et al. 2011; Wiseman 2008). Treatment of wastewater for reuse or disposal varies by geological region owing to differing chemical compositions and may include biological treatment, filtration or aeration steps, and/or reverse-osmosis separation (Lester et al. 2015).

Potential Routes of Exposure to Oil and Natural Gas Operation Chemicals

Water. Oil and natural gas operations can lead to the contamination of surface and groundwater, both of which are sources of drinking water (reviewed by Brantley et al. 2014; Burton et al. 2014; Vengosh et al. 2014). There are a variety of routes of contamination: spills of chemicals during transport to and from the fracturing site, the drilling and fracturing processes, improper treatment and disposal of wastewater, failure of well casings, and structural failure in abandoned wells (Ingraffea et al. …

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