Hydraulic fracturing, AKA, "fracking" is a process that extracts oil and gas from shale deposits deep in the earth. Fossil fuels that are contained in these areas are extremely difficult to access. Fracking is the process of drilling into existing cracks in shale.
It starts with the injection of water and chemicals into small fissures in the rock. This causes them to expand and the oil and gas then flow through the larger openings and into a well that has been drilled alongside the fracking site.
It's controversial because fracking has implicated in increased earthquakes, water supply issues, and environmental damage. A recent study from Duke University suggested that fracking could be a factor in a problem that isn't related to the environment: obesity. A study recently published by researchers from Duke's Nicholas School for the Environment and a professor from the University of Missouri showed that being exposed to the chemicals used in fracking causes overstimulation in fat cells in mice.
Chris Kassotis is a postdoctoral researcher at Duke and says the study results show that people who live in areas near fracking sites could be exposed to some of the solvents used in the process. He explained, "People living in these regions may be exposed to these chemicals in the drinking water. They trigger cells that are sitting in your body, waiting to be recruited to become fat cells for energy storage."
Researchers at Duke and in Missouri submerged mouse cells in solutions that had different fracking chemicals in them, as well as fracking wastewater and surface water from areas near fracking operations. After two weeks of sitting in the various fluids, fat cells from the mice increased in size. Depending on what they were soaking in, cells grew by 20% at the low end to 80% in some solutions. The total number of cells also increased, over a control group. Even the chemical solutions in the research which had been diluted a thousand-fold showed increased fat cell activity. The chemicals used in the study included benzene, phenol, toluene, and naphthalene. Kassotis is no stranger to research on fracking having published four other studies since 2015 that suggest fracking impacts fertility, mammary glands, the immune system and the reproductive system.
Representatives from Energy In Depth, which is a public outreach arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, disagree with the findings. Nicole Jacobs, a spokesperson for the group stated, "Similar to previous studies by this research team, they use completely unrealistic concentrations and fail to identify exposure pathways that would expose people to fracking fluids. Further, in the highly unlikely event that hydraulic fracturing additives were to enter a water supply, it's absurd to think that a person would spend two weeks marinating in these fluids."
The authors of the work stress that their study is not alleging that fracking causes obesity. Their results show only that fat cells in mice were stimulated by exposure to fracking additives and that mice have a similar metabolism to humans. Check out the video below to learn more about the work.