Exposure to fracking chemicals during pregnancy may aggravate multiple sclerosis (MS) severity and induce an earlier start of symptoms, a new study in mice suggests.
The study, “Developmental Exposure to a Mixture of 23 Chemicals Associated With Unconventional Oil and Gas Operations Alters the Immune System of Mice,” was published in the journal Toxicological Sciences.
Fracking, also known as unconventional oil and gas extraction, consists of pumping millions of gallons of chemical-filled water underground to fracture rock and release oil and gas. In fracking-dense areas, as many as 200 chemicals have been identified in groundwater. Studies have described higher rates of asthma attacks and diseases such as acute lymphocytic leukemia among those living in these areas.
Of these fracking chemicals in groundwater, 23 were recently associated with developmental and reproductive impairments in mice. These chemicals were classified as endocrine disrupters, which means they are able to interfere with hormones.
Because hormones critically impact the immune system, scientists in this study evaluated the immune impact of these fracking chemicals on mice. The chemicals were added to the drinking water of pregnant mice at levels equivalent to those found in groundwater near fracking areas.
Three mouse models were used: house dust mite-induced allergic airway disease, influenza A virus infection (a type of flu), and experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (a model of MS).
Results showed that mouse pups, particularly females, had altered levels of certain subtypes of immune T-cells in all three mouse models. Notably, in the MS model, females developed disease earlier and had a more severe course.
“Our study reveals that there are links between early life exposure to fracking-associated chemicals and damage to the immune system in mice,” Paige Lawrence, PhD, the study’s lead author and chair of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in a press release. “This discovery opens up new avenues of research to identify, and someday prevent, possible adverse health effects in people living near fracking sites.”
Lawrence added that the researchers’ ultimate goal is to assess whether these chemicals affect human health, “but we first need to know what specific aspects of health to look at, so this was a good place to start.”
Protecting against infections, preventing allergies, or halting damage induced by an uncontrolled immune system requires a finely tuned balance. The investigators believe that fracking chemicals disrupt cellular pathways that determine which immune cells are called to action.
“These observations suggest that developmental exposure to complex mixtures of water contaminants, such as those derived from UOG operations, could contribute to immune dysregulation and disease later in life,” the researchers wrote in the study.
This ongoing research could help to inform biomedical scientists, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public on the effects of fracking on health.