Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has generated widespread media attention this year. The process, which injects water and chemicals into the ground to release "natural" gas and oil from shale bedrock, has been shown to contribute significantly to air and water pollution and has even been linked to earthquakes. But little has been reported on the ways in which fracking may have unique impacts on women. Chemicals used in fracking have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive health problems and there have been reports of rises in crimes against women in some fracking "boom" towns, which have attracted itinerant workers with few ties to the community.
Toxins in Fracking Process Linked to Breast Cancer
Not only has the chemical cocktail inserted into the ground been shown to contaminate groundwater and drinking water, but fracking fluid also picks up toxins on its trip down to the bedrock and back up again that had previously been safely locked away underground. Chemicals linked to cancer are present in nearly all of the steps of extraction -- in the fracking fluids, the release of radioactive and other hazardous materials from the shale, and in transportation and drilling related air pollution and contaminated water disposal.
Some reports indicate that more than 25 percent of the chemicals used in natural gas operations have been linked to cancer or mutations, although companies like Haliburton have lobbied hard to keep the public in the dark about the exact formula of fracking fluids. According to the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce, fracking companies used 95 products containing 13 different known and suspected carcinogens between 2005 and 2009 as part of the fracking fluid that is injected in the ground. These include naphthalene, benzene, and acrylamide. Benzene, which the U.S. EPA has classified as a Group A, human carcinogen, is released in the fracking process through air pollution and in the water contaminated by the drilling process. The Institute of Medicine released a report in December 2011 that links breast cancer to exposure to benzene.
Up to thirty-seven percent of chemicals in fracking fluids have been identified as endocrine-disruptors -- chemicals that have potential adverse developmental and reproductive effects. According to the U.S. EPA, exposure to these types of chemicals has also been implicated in breast cancer.
The Marcellus Shale in the northeast part of the United States also naturally contains radioactive materials, including radium, which is largely locked away in the bedrock. The New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) analyzed 13 samples of water, contaminated by the fracking process, as a result of the hydraulic fracturing of the shale during the extraction process. The DEC found that the resulting water contained levels of radium-226, some as high as 267 times the limit for safe discharge into the environment and more than 3000 times the limit safe for people to drink. One gas well can produce over a million gallons of contaminated water. A New York Times expose in 2011, released secret EPA documents that illustrated how this water is sometimes sent to sewage plants that are not designed to process the dangerous chemicals or radiation which in some instances are used in municipal drinking supplies or are released into rivers and streams that supply drinking water.
Emerging data points to a problem requiring more study. In the six counties in Texas which have seen the most concentrated gas drilling, breast cancer rates have risen, while over the same period the rates for this kind of cancer have declined elsewhere in the state. The average of the six counties' rates has risen from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. Similarly, in western New York, where traditional gas drilling processes have been used for decades before hydrofracking came along, has been practiced for nearly two centuries, rural counties with historically intensive gas industry activity show consistently higher cancer death rates (PDF) than rural counties without drilling activity. For women, this includes breast, cervix, colon, endocrine glands, larynx, ovary, rectal, uterine, and other cancers.
Toxins linked to Spontaneous Abortion and Birth Defects
Certain compounds, such as toluene, that are released as gas at the wellhead and also found in water contaminated by fracking have the potential to harm pregnant women or women wishing to become pregnant. According to the U.S. EPA, studies have shown that toluene can cause an assortment of developmental disorders in children born to pregnant women that have been exposed to toulene. Pregnant women also carry an increase risk of spontaneous abortion from exposure to toluene. Wyoming, which contains some of the most active drilling fields in the country, failed to meet federal standards for air quality due to fumes containing toluene and benzene in 2009.
Sandra Steingraber, an acclaimed ecologist and author of "Raising Elijah" -- a book on how to raise a child in an age of environmental hazards, takes the strong stand that fracking violates a woman's reproductive rights. "If you want to plan a pregnancy and someone else's chemicals sabotage that -- it's a violation of your rights as a woman to have agency over your own reproductive destiny," she said.
Steingraber sees banning fracking as an issue that both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps can rally behind. She has been giving talks on why opposition to fracking should be considered a feminist issue. The author won a Heinz award -- which recognizes individuals for their contributions in areas including the environment -- for her work on environmental toxins. She dedicated the $100,000 prize to the fight against fracking.
Crimes Against Women on the Rise in Some Energy Boom Towns
Beyond concerns about cancer and toxins are other societal ills related to fracking that disproportionately impact women. Some areas across the country where fracking has boomed have noted an increase in crime -- including domestic violence and sexual assault. In Dickinson, North Dakota, there has been at least a 300% increase in assault and sex crimes over the past year. The mayor has attributed the increase in crime to the oil and "natural" gas boom in their area.
The Executive Director of the Abuse & Rape Crisis Center in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Amy Miller, confirmed that there has been an increase in unknown assailant rapes since the gas industry moved into the region -- which are much harder to prosecute. Miller also noted that domestic abuse has spiked locally, with the cases primarily from gas industry families. The county has more than 700 wells drilled, with more than 300 of these operational, and another 2,000 drilling permits have been issued.
The Gas Industry's Pink Rig
Even though fracking and drilling are dependent on a potpourri of carcinogenic chemicals, big energy companies don't hesitate to slap on pink paint in PR campaigns championing breast cancer awareness.
In 2009, a "natural" gas drilling rig in Colorado was painted pink with a percentage of the daily profits from the unit going to the Breast Cancer Foundation. This and other showy gestures by the shale gas and oil industry appear to do little to alleviate concerns about the impact that fracking chemicals and practices may be having on public health and safety.