San Francisco, CA—The widespread practice of industrial fracking, a drilling process used to enhance oil and natural gas production, may seem like a far off concern. It may seem like a subject for those engaged in debates about how we should provide our nation with energy. But with the controversy surrounding its potential side effects, and the negative impact it may be having on communities across the country, one could argue fracking warrants more attention from ordinary citizens.

Among the issues that have gained public attention surrounding fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is methane migration. It is thought that fracking can cause gas to seep up into new areas more quickly than is natural, and that this can lead to potentially explosive conditions. One widely circulated result of this is that some people who live near fracking operations find they can light their tap water on fire. Also of concern are the high amounts of water that must be transported to fracking sites, and still another is the notion that fracking can actually lead to earthquakes. Critics also note that fracking is allowing the government and industry to continue to rely on fossil fuels instead of developing alternatives.

But the concern on the table at the latest meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) involved the chemical cocktails used, along with water, to help dislodge gas and oil from rock formations during fracking. Researchers presented a study that found that out of almost 200 often used chemical compounds, around one-third have little safety data, and eight are known to be toxic to mammals.

Study author William Stringfellow, Ph.D., and his team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of the Pacific examined databases and reports to compile their list of common fracking substances. Some of these are gelling agents to thicken the fluid, biocides to cut down on the growth of microbes, sand to widen small cracks in the bedrock and chemicals to prevent pipe corrosion. Stringfellow noted that the fracking industry has characterized the chemicals used as primarily food additives, implying their safety.

The analysis found that many nontoxic, food-grade materials are actually used in fracking. But the fact that these may be biodegradable and edible does not mean they can be disposed of easily. “Even ice cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down rather than releasing them directly into the environment,” Stringfellow said, according to ACS.

Then there were the handful of compounds, including biocides, that are known to be toxic. The investigation found that these are being used in high enough concentrations to cause concern. The contamination of well water with fracking fluids could therefore pose health risks to humans. Scientists are also investigating the impact of fracking fluids on the environment as a whole, and have found some evidence of toxic effects on aquatic life.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2014