Is Your Drinking Water Safe Due To Fracking Near You?

Is your drinking water toxic map

Past studies have shown that fracking chemicals could cause infertility, cancer, and birth defects.

According to data compiled from a new tool developed at Penn Medicine, a disproportionately high number of wells in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio contains chemicals that target testosterone-pathways in the human body. Credit: Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

It has been shown that exposure to hydraulic drilling fluid in drinking water raises the risk of breathing difficulties, premature births, congenital heart defects, and other medical issues. But not every well is made equal. Because a complex mix of chemical additives is used by numerous hydraulic fracturing or fracking sites, individuals and researchers are often in the dark about the health effects of living near a specific well.

Because a complex mix of chemical additives is used by fracking sites, people and researchers are often in the dark about the health effects of living near a specific well. A modern, interactive tool now helps members of the community and scientists to find out which contaminants in their drinking water could be lurking.

Now, as a result of fracking, a new, interactive tool built by Penn Medicine researchers enables community members and scientists to find out which contaminants could be hiding in their drinking water. You can view the nearest fracking sites in your state, learn the chemicals are used at those sites, and view their levels of toxicity by typing your ZIP code into the website or accompanying app — named WellExplorer.

For example, in a recent study published in Database: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation, the developers of the WellExplorer app found that wells in Alabama use a disproportionately high number of ingredients targeting estrogen pathways, whereas a high number of ingredients targeting testosterone pathways are used in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. According to the study's principal investigator Mary Regina Boland, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Informatics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the data identified by WellExplorer may be especially important for individuals who use private water wells, which are popular in rural Pennsylvania, because homeowners may not conduct rigorous testing for these fracking chemicals.

"It is understood that the chemical mixtures used in fracking control hormonal pathways, including testosterone and estrogen, and can thus influence human development and reproduction," said Boland. "It is important to know about these chemicals, not just for scientists who may be researching health effects in a population, but also for people who may want to learn more about potential health risks based on their proximity to a well. They may then get their water checked."

Although in the United States, acts as the central registry for fracking chemical releases, the database is not user-friendly to the general public and does not provide details on the biological activity of the chemical fracking agents mentioned therein. In order to create a tool that could provide researchers and individuals alike with more in-depth, functional knowledge, the Penn researchers first cleaned, shortened, and subsetted data to create two newly available files that could be used in the website and app of WellExplorer.

Since the research team also wanted to provide the ingredients found at these well sites with toxic and biological properties, they incorporated Toxin and Toxin Target Database (T3DB) data. They gathered information from that database on the protein targets (and genes encoding certain proteins) of fracking chemicals, toxin modes of action, and basic protein functions. In addition, they extracted from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry the toxicity rankings of the top 275 most toxic ingredients, as well as a list of food additive ingredients, as defined in Substances Added to the Food Inventory. The team then connected all that data together and built a ZIP Searcher feature in their web tool to allow individuals to easily classify their risk of exposure to specific chemicals.

"The information was out there, but not all of it was connected together in a way that's easy to use for everyday individuals," Boland said. 

Boland added, however, that the use of chemicals at a fracking site does not necessarily mean that such chemicals will be present in the supply of water, which will depend on other variables, such as what kind of soil or bedrock is being drilled into, and the depth of both the hydraulic fracturing well and the depth of the private well of a person. WellExplorer, however, offers a starting point for residents who may have symptoms and want to have their water tested.

In addition to collecting information for people, WellExplorer can also be used as an essential tool for environmental scientists, epidemiologists, and other researchers to relate specific health outcomes and proximity to particular fracking well. From a production standpoint, this implies that while developing the website and app, the research team had to be mindful of the two audiences, said Owen Wetherbee, who helped create WellExplorer while interning at the Boland Lab.

Nationally, researchers are trying to relate fracking to health results, and I think that a major reason why it is difficult to address that question is that different wells use different chemicals, and so the side effects of exposure will vary from place to place, "Boland added." "Some information on where to start searching for these responses is what this app offers you."

Watch this video that demonstrates the new database and app. This is a demo video to demonstrate the functionality of the WellExplorer app available on iTunes starting September 8, 2020. This app enables individuals to search for hydraulic fracturing wells that are using chemical ingredients that target various hormonal pathways, including testosterone and estrogen pathways. You can search for various locations and it retrieves wells that are close to the location that you search. This information on wells can be important for assessing potential hormonal exposure via ingesting contaminated water.