Fracked Up: Drilling Pollutant Could Mess With Testosterone

Fracked Up: Drilling Pollutant Could Mess With Testosterone
Gas is flared as waste from the Monterey Shale formation (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

New research offers another potential downside of fracking: an increased risk of impotence and fertility problems in men, at least according to findings from cells in the lab.

This research, which is still being peer-reviewed ahead of publication, was set to be presented during the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting, which would have ended Tuesday if a pandemic weren’t forcing us all to stay home.

The researchers were curious about how hydraulic fracturing”which extracts oil and gas by injecting water, industrial chemicals like solvents and biocides, and sand into deep rock, creating enough pressure that the rock cracks and thus releasing the targeted oil or gas”impacts the male reproductive system. First, the team had to identify key chemicals used during the fracking process that could possibly disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates our hormones. Testosterone was the hormone of focus. The team looked specifically at the California fracking industry, which is more transparent about the chemicals used.

The team used a two-step process to investigate any potential connection between fracking pollutants and testosterone. The researchers started by using a computer program to screen hundreds of chemicals emitted into the air during the fracking process. Only 60 chemicals made the cut. That’s because these 60 are the only ones whose molecular structures are small enough to bind to the male hormone receptors. The team then used the program to filter through these chemicals and found five that were able to disrupt these receptors and, theoretically, the endocrine system at large.

However, they didn’t stop at a computer model to come to their conclusion. They purchased these five chemicals and tested their impact on cell cultures in a lab. In total, the team studied 96 plates of cell cultures. (Examining impacts in a cell culture is more akin to seeing how a substance would impact a developing foetus than an adult human.) This is a clear limitation of the research, but the team was able to identify one surfactant chemical whose disruption was significant: Genapol X-100, an industrial cleaning agent used in most of California’s fracking operations.

“From what we did here, we showed that this compound can disrupt male sex hormone receptors, which is the androgen receptor,” lead author Phum Tachachartvanich, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Davis, told Earther.

Until the researchers know how much of this stuff ends up inside human bodies, though, they can’t say that fracking itself may be harming the male reproductive system. However, the previous research has found that disruption to the androgen receptors can result in increased infertility, reduced sperm counts, and even testicular cancer. The lack of testosterone can also hurt male sex drive and erections. Research has already shown that fracking pollutants can contaminate the air near drilling sites, threatening the health of people who live nearby.

Developing humans are typically most sensitive to these environmental harms. If a pregnant woman is exposed to such endocrine disruptors, her foetus likely is, too. Previous research has found that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the womb can cause permanent damage to a child’s reproductive system. This may present itself as a child born with a single testicle or, in severe cases, undescended testicles. To be clear, the authors can’t conclusively say fracking is causing such harms, but their findings certainly suggest this is possible.

“One major limitation is that what we’ve seen in vitro”in cell culture”might not be seen in humans, so this is the major limitation from this study,” Tachachartvanich said. “This is just the early stage of the study. You have to do more research to confirm if this chemical exposure can really affect androgen receptors in humans
.”

Do we really want to wait around and find out if this is true? We already know fracking lowers the birth weights of newborns. All the air pollution it emits isn’t healthy for the rest of us, either. And methane emitted during this process only exacerbates the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government isn’t currently trying to crack down on pollution. Instead, the Trump administration has suspended environmental enforcement and considered offering fracking companies a cash bailout for the money they’ve been losing as global oil demand drops during the coronavirus pandemic.

With all that, there’s only one clear path forward for this industry. Let’s ban it.