Research on the health harms of fracking questions expansion of this industry

With two liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities scheduled to come on line in the next two years, and three more under development, British Columbia is poised to become a major exporter of gas to Asia. Well-drilling likewise is forecasted to massively increase in B.C.’s northeastern Peace River district to supply these facilities, resulting in plans to construct dozens of pipelines to transport the increased gas volumes to the coast. Almost all gas in B.C. and Canada these days is extracted through a process called “fracking.”

In March, we published a review in the Canadian Journal of Public Health of more than 50 studies examining the health outcomes of people living close to this industrial activity. The results are less than reassuring.

Fracking became widely adopted in the mid-2000s. The technique involves drilling vertically for several kilometers under fresh and saline water aquifers and then horizontally for several more kilometers. Because the gas is trapped in shale or “tight” rock formation, millions of litres of water mixed with chemicals and other substances are then forced down the well with enough pressure to produce micro-ruptures (hence the name “fracking”) of the rock to release the gas.

These fracking chemicals can escape into the environment through spills, evaporation or leakage of wastewater. Exhaust fumes from diesel engines and gas flaring are other sources of chemical exposure.

Half of the studies included in our review focused on pregnant mothers and their newborns. Of these, the large majority reported harmful effects of living near these sites, including impaired fetal growth, premature birth and congenital malformations. Other studies found that living close to fracking sites may lead to higher risk of asthma flares, heart disease, childhood cancers and overall mortality.

Several reviewed studies showed a pattern called “dose-response,” in which increasing exposure levels was associated with increasing risk of preterm birth, congenital birth defects and childhood leukemia.

Studies were also set in multiple jurisdictions across the United States and one each in B.C. and Alberta, suggesting the findings of harmful outcomes were not restricted to one location, a characteristic referred to as “consistency” in the scientific literature.

There was also evidence of “biological plausibility,” meaning that the observed relationship between fracking exposures and harmful health outcomes makes biological sense. At least 14 chemicals used in fracking fluid (e.g., benzene) are known carcinogens.

At least 14 chemicals used in fracking fluid are known carcinogens.

A systematic evaluation has demonstrated that of the chemicals for which toxicological data were available, 43 per cent and 40 per cent of them were potential reproductive and developmental toxicants, respectively. Other chemicals and substances used in fracking fluid can induce inflammation and/or disrupt hormonal activity in human cells, suggesting a number of pathways to explain the outcomes found by researchers.

In biomonitoring research, Canadian researchers have reported higher levels of fracking-implicated toxicants in the urine, hair, home tap water and air of pregnant individuals in northeastern B.C. living close to fracking compared to the general Canadian population. Some of these toxicants were also significantly higher in Indigenous populations compared to non-Indigenous participants.

When fracking for gas became widespread in the mid-2000, there were no studies on its human health impacts. By 2014, when the B.C. government commissioned its first and only report on human health and fracking, three quarters of the studies in our review hadn’t even come out. A re-examination of this new knowledge and evidence by the B.C. government is clearly necessary.

The fracking industry is disproportionately located in rural and remote regions that are home to a large numbers of First Nations communities whose health is already compromised by structural and systemic inequities – including the recent decline in life expectancy of 7.1 years among First Nations people compared to 1.1 years for other BC residents over the same time period reported by the First Nations Health Authority.

In this context, the decision to double down on the expansion of this industrial activity without taking pause to review the health evidence is especially concerning, and calls into question commitments to righting the health harms of anti-Indigenous racism and colonization highlighted in the B.C.’s DRIPA legislation, the Truth and Reconciliation and In Plain Sight reports.

The “precautionary principle” is a term in public health decision-making that elevates preventive action, when there is credible evidence of significant harms to human health even when the study quality and data remain imperfect. Applying the precautionary principle, it is time to reconsider our current policy direction based on the available evidence.

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Margaret McGregor


Margaret McGregor is a health policy researcher and clinical associate professor with the UBC Department of Family Practice.

Amira Aker


Amira Aker is a postdoctoral fellow in environmental epidemiology at the Centre de recherche du CHU de Québec and Université Laval.

Ulrike Meyer


Ulrike Meyer is a family physician working in Dawson Creek, B.C., an area heavily impacted by fracking.

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin


Élyse Caron-Beaudoin is an assistant professor in environmental health at the University of Toronto in the Department of Health and Society.

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