The role of toxicological science in meeting the challenges and opportunities of hydraulic fracturing

Toxicol Sci. 2014 Jun;139(2):271-83. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfu061. Epub 2014 Apr 4.


We briefly describe how toxicology can inform the discussion and debate of the merits of hydraulic fracturing by providing information on the potential toxicity of the chemical and physical agents associated with this process, individually and in combination. We consider upstream activities related to bringing chemical and physical agents to the site, on-site activities including drilling of wells and containment of agents injected into or produced from the well, and downstream activities including the flow/removal of hydrocarbon products and of produced water from the site. A broad variety of chemical and physical agents are involved. As the industry expands this has raised concern about the potential for toxicological effects on ecosystems, workers, and the general public. Response to these concerns requires a concerted and collaborative toxicological assessment. This assessment should take into account the different geology in areas newly subjected to hydraulic fracturing as well as evolving industrial practices that can alter the chemical and physical agents of toxicological interest. The potential for ecosystem or human exposure to mixtures of these agents presents a particular toxicological and public health challenge. These data are essential for developing a reliable assessment of the potential risks to the environment and to human health of the rapidly increasing use of hydraulic fracturing and deep underground horizontal drilling techniques for tightly bound shale gas and other fossil fuels. Input from toxicologists will be most effective when employed early in the process, before there are unwanted consequences to the environment and human health, or economic losses due to the need to abandon or rework costly initiatives.

Keywords: benzene; hydraulic fracturing; methane; mixtures; radon; shale gas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Monitoring / statistics & numerical data
  • Environmental Pollution / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollution / prevention & control*
  • Environmental Pollution / statistics & numerical data
  • Extraction and Processing Industry / methods*
  • Hydrology / methods*
  • Toxicology / methods*