Health Risks of Water Contamination

Depending on the chemicals you are exposed to, you may or may not have an immediate physical reaction. Many of the health risks listed below result from long-term repeated exposures. However, some chemicals, especially those that have been identified as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), may be harmful at low doses. Therefore, it is very important to be vigilant as to what is in your water and whether an industry is impacting your water source. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the study Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States in 2016. Chapter 9 outlines possible health risks from exposure to waterborne chemicals from shale gas activities that have been studied for human toxicity.  

These health risks include: 

  • Cancer 

  • Immune system effects  

  • Changes in body weight 

  • Changes in blood chemistry 

  • Cardiotoxicity 

  • Neurotoxicity 

  • Liver and kidney toxicity 

  • Reproductive and developmental toxicity 

The EPA also notes that inorganic substances in the wastewater originating in the shale, including chloride, bromine, iodine, and ammonium, can contribute to the formation of disinfection byproducts during wastewater treatment that impact drinking water sources. Long-term exposure to these byproducts can result in an increased risk of: 

  • Cancer 

  • Anemia 

  • Liver and kidney problems 

  • Central nervous system issues 

Note that the EPA study does not attempt to determine how many people have been impacted and in what way. 

The EPA classifies oil and gas production wastes as radioactive, and since the waste is accumulated at the surface, it is referred to as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM) (EPA, 2021). Of particular health concern is radium. Long-term exposure to radium increases the risk of some types of cancer, particularly lung and bone cancer.  

In addition to the EPA’s work, researchers continue to study health impacts of contaminated water via both epidemiological studies and tissue and animal studies in labs.  

Epidemiological studies have linked living near shale gas facilities to: 

  • Greater risk of adverse birth outcomes, including congenital heart defects, neural tube defects, small for gestational age, low birth weight, preterm delivery, high-risk pregnancy, and infant mortalities 

  • Health symptoms that include headaches, fatigue, and skin rashes 

Chemicals in oil and gas waste have been linked to endocrine (or hormone function) disruption in the body and may have significant health impacts at very low doses. Spills and waste disposal have been linked to an increase in endocrine disruption in impacted waterways (Nagel, et. al., 2020). If exposed to contaminated water, fetuses and children are particularly at risk as their bodies are dependent on receiving the right hormones at the right time. Disruption in this process can alter normal growth and development. Many impacts may not be evident until later in life.  

Note that many chemicals introduced into the environment by shale gas activities have never been tested for human toxicity, and so their health impacts are unknown. In addition, chemicals used by industry and those brought up with the produced water are not constants. These may change based on many factors including geology of the region and differences in chemicals used by individual companies.