As part of their commitment to further ongoing research on the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in unconventional oil & gas (UOG) operations, Dr. Susan Nagel* and Dr. Christopher Kassotis* released the results of their latest research this week. Endocrine Disrupting Activity in Surface Water Associated with a West Virginia Oil and Gas Industry Wastewater Injection Disposal Site was published on Wednesday at Science of the Total Environment.
Nagel and Kassotis are no strangers to Garfield County. In 2013, they headed up a research team that identified endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in fracking fluid and subsequently determined that water samples collected near drilling sites in Garfield County contained higher than normal levels of those chemicals.
In September 2014, Nagel and Kassotis returned to Garfield County to collect more water samples for research that was partially funded by local residents via an online campaign at Experiment, a platform for funding scientific discoveries. Their study, Developmental and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas operations found higher endocrine-disrupting activity in water samples collected near fracking sites in Garfield as compared to sites with no fracking activity. The study concluded:
… Given that many of the air and water pollutants found near UOG sites are recognized as being developmental and reproductive toxicants, there is a compelling need to increase our knowledge of the potential health consequences for infants, children, and adults from these chemicals through rapid and thorough further health research investigation. Chemicals used and produced in UOG operations are associated with human health effects and demonstrated to cause reproductive and developmental damage in laboratory animals …
… Taken together, there is an urgent need for the following: 1) biomonitoring of human, domestic and wild animals for these chemicals; and 2) systematic and comprehensive epidemiological studies to examine the potential for human harm …
The study released this week is a follow-up to another 2015 study in which the Nagel and Kassotis team found that even low-level prenatal exposure to two dozen fracking chemicals had led to lowered sperm counts in male mice once they reached adulthood: Endocrine-Disrupting Activity of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Adverse Health Outcomes After Prenatal Exposure in Male Mice.
For their latest study, Nagel and Kassotis conducted their research in West Virginia. Their team collected surface water samples from Wolf Creek, which is located downhill from a fracking wastewater injection well site [above]. The facility includes a deep waste well, several holding ponds, and storage tanks. The creek flows into the New River, a few miles upstream from a drinking water treatment facility for a population of 11,300 in and around Fayetteville.
Previous unpublished research led by USGS scientist Denise Akob showed that the sodium, chloride, barium, and strontium chemistry downstream in Wolf Creek match the profiles of fracking wastewater. The West Virginia facility came to the attention of USGS in 2013, because of pollution reports from a Duke University study. On the basis of those findings USGS scientists sought out Nagel and Kassotis to conduct more water sampling and research. Akob, who helped direct their research, said, “Ultimately we hope to provide a national perspective for these findings. The site will be only one of many sites we plan to include in our research.”
For the West Virginia study the Nagel and Kassotis team collected water samples on the disposal facility site, and several other locations downstream and upstream. Samples were also collected from a separate local stream.
According to Nagel, “Surface water samples collected on the disposal facility site and immediately downstream exhibited considerably greater EDC activity than surface water samples collected immediately upstream and in a nearby reference stream. The level of EDC activity was within the range or higher than the level known to impact the health of aquatic organisms.”
EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) can interfere with hormones in animals and humans. They can also cause cancer, birth defects, immune disorders, and developmental disorders, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The chemicals have been linked to switched genders in fish, lowered fertility in mice, and hyperactivity in children.
“We found levels of these endocrine disrupting chemicals high enough to threaten health,” Nagel said.
The fact that higher levels of EDC activity were found downstream from the fracking wastewater disposal plant, as opposed to both upstream and in surrounding streams, is a major concern.
“Now that we have identified impacts to the local environment due to activities at the site, further work is needed to assess the specific routes of contaminant movement from these operations into the stream,” Nagel told EcoWatch. “It is likely that aquatic life downstream of this facility are swimming in oil and gas chemicals and at levels high enough to disrupt the endocrine system.”
The problem isn’t that the EDCs are present in the water. The issue is the quantity of the chemicals researchers found in the downstream water samples.
“In many cases, even with considerable dilution, levels of endocrine-disrupting contaminants would still be capable of disrupting the development of fish, amphibians, and other aquatic organisms,” Nagel said.
“What’s really interesting is that they sampled from different sites that are in different places in watershed,” Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin, which was not involved in the study, told Environmental Health News. “It clearly shows substantial difference in endocrine activity looking upstream and downstream.”
Dr. Nagel hopes that additional research will be able to identify exactly how wastewater disposal impacts both surface and groundwater in West Virginia. “The major take-homes are that oil and gas injection well operations may be another source for contamination of surface water with EDCs used in oil and gas production.”
Dr. Kassotis summed up the overriding implications of the study:
“Approximately 36,000 of these disposal wells are currently in operation across the U.S., and little work has been done to evaluate their potential impacts on nearby surface water. Given the large number of disposal wells in the U.S., it is critical for further investigation into the potential human and environmental health impacts.”
On Thursday, Dr. Kassotis presented the research and findings of the West Virginia study during a teleconference sponsored by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), hosted by Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski.
In his presentation, Dr. Kassotis discussed the similarities between the Garfield County research and the West Virginia research. He outlined these specific impacts on water quality:
- Elevated antagonist activities (EDCs) present in surface water downstream from oil and gas wastewater disposal operation.
- Geochemical and organic chemical analyses (Akob et al. and Orem et al.) demonstrate unconventional oil and gas wastewater influence on stream quality.
- Antagonist equivalent concentrations at levels known to result in adverse health effects in aquatic organisms.
Kassotis then combined those impacts with our “Growing Understanding of Adverse Human and Animal Health Outcomes” identified in these previous studies by other researchers:
General adverse health
- Increased reported health symptoms in humans (Rabinowitx et al. 2014) and dogs (Slizovskiy et al. 2015).
Increased inpatient hostial utilizatio rates (Jemelita et al. 2015)
- Respiratory, GI, immune, reproductive, other issues for humans, companion and food animals, wildlife, etc. (Bamberger & Oswald)
Symptom abatement for families, animals that left drilling areas (Bamberger & Oswald 2015)
- Increased rate of congenital heart defects (Mackenzie et al. 2014)
- Increased rates of preterm birth, high risk pregnancies (Casey et al. 2015)
- Increased rates of low birth weight and SGA babies with greater density (Stacy et al. 2015)
When taking into consideration all these previous studies plus their team’s cumulative research, Kassotis then explained that test results point to the following “Overall Take-Homes”:
- Some chemicals used in and/or produced by oil and natural gas operations can act as nuclear receptor agonists and antagonists.
- Humans and animals are likely exposed to these chemicals via multiple routes in drilling-dense areas
Drinking water, inhalation, and dermal absorption.
- Injection sites may represent another route through which oil and gas operations may influence EDC contributions to surface/groundwater.
- Gestational exposure to a mixture of oil and gas operation chemicals at likely environmentally-relevant concentrations resulted in adverse health outcomes in C57 mice.
Increased body weights, reduced sperm counts in males.
Increased body weights, suppressed pituitary hormones, altered folliculogenesis in females.
It is significant to understand that with each and every new study, researchers are furthering the identification and documentation of the impacts of EDCs in surface and groundwater on human and animal health and the environment. Focusing their own research to expand on the research of their team and others, Nagel and Kassotis are breaking ground by building a comprehensive body of scientific evidence that clearly and consistently shows endocrine disruptor activity in surface and groundwater near UOG operations.
Many of us in Garfield County have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Nagel and Dr. Kassotis, as well as contributing our time, energy, and donations to this important ongoing work. Dr. Nagel and Dr. Kassotis repeatedly emphasize the need for further research.
This is a 4-minute video interview with Dr. Nagel.
This is a 30-minute teleconference by Dr. Nagel in which she discusses the link between the West Virginia study and the Garfield County studies.
* Dr. Susan Nagel is the director of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health in the School of Medicine, and an adjunct associate professor of biological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.
* Dr. Christopher Kassotis is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He completed his PhD at the University of Missouri working with Susan Nagel to assess unconventional oil and gas operations as a novel source of endocrine disrupting chemicals in water, and the potential for adverse human and animal health outcomes from exposure. He is a current postdoctoral fellow at Duke University.