An Unexpected Side Effect of Fracking: Chlamydia

Texas counties with high shale drilling activity experience hike in rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, but not syphilis for some reason. But no association was found in North Dakota or Colorado, Yalies report

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Fracking in Texas
Fracking in TexasCredit: Eric Kounce / TexasRaiser
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

To the consternation of fracking fans everywhere, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health this weekend confirmed a correlation reported two years earlier between intense fracking activity and a local increase in certain sexually transmitted diseases. The first study had been in Ohio; the new one was in Texas.

Other side effects of fracking include earthquakes, methane emissions, groundwater contamination, sundry pollution, hydrocarbon spills and health risks, but the risks to health usually cited are silicosis and congenital heart defects, not STDs. Yet here we are.

In relevant Texas counties, the researchers found heightened rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, but for some reason not syphilis, reports senior author Nicole Deziel of the Yale School of Public Health, writing with Joshua Warren and Elise Elliott of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

Rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia rose 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in fracking-intense Texan counties compared to Texan counties without any fracking, they found.

“The lack of an association between shale drilling activity and rates of syphilis may be because this STI occurs most commonly in men who have sex with men, which compose only a small proportion of the male population, making it difficult to study,” writes the team. They don’t mention herpes. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says syphilis is more common among men.)

Anti-fracking protest by Israelis wearing bunny ears in front of the Knesset, March 2012.Credit: Yael Ifergan

Why might rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in Texas fracking fields be higher? Because fracking is a labor-intense industry that often involves “importing” specialized workers, the scientists explain.

Who are these mobile workers? Young men living in temporary camps with limited connections to the community, who seek company as young men do, the authors elaborate. There was no information on condom use rates among these migratory males.

The paper published this weekend merely reinforces prior work published in PLoS ONE in 2018, which found similar results in Ohio: a 21% increase in chlamydia and a 19% increase in gonorrhea in fracking countries, and no increase in syphilis.

“Similar experiences with other migratory labor movements have long been recognized to increase risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV,” the authors reported in 2018.

To be clear, it isn't only roaming men who could constitute a problem. An unrelated 2013 study done in China found high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infection in migrating groups as opposed to sedentary ones, but noted that being female was a high risk factor. In both sexes, though, frequent social activities and frequent travel correlated with higher rates STI-associated risk behaviors.

And meanwhile in Texas, “The findings...add to the evidence of the social impacts in communities hosting the shale gas industry,” states Deziel. She does not explain why no associations between intense fracking and the clap was found in Colorado or North Dakota. It does beg more checking to see if the increases reported in Texas and previously in Ohio were coincidental, but there is no question that fracking harms the environment and likely health as well.

Both are fairly new technologies, but fracking and horizontal drilling have come to produce about 60 percent of all oil and natural gas in the United States, in 2019 boosting American hydrocarbon production to No. 1 in the world, passing even Saudi Arabia.

Fracking has been key to the decline in oil prices, possibly to the delight of some economists and drivers but to the horror of climate change scientists, who warn that the technology is part of the reason why humankind has not weaned itself off fossil fuels despite their costs to both the planet at large, the atmosphere and health of living creatures.

And now it seems that part of the impairment to the health of living creatures associated with fracking is STDs.

The researchers note that their paper relates to STD cases from 2000 to 2016 to cover pre- and post-fracking periods in order to account for pre-existing trends in STI rates.

In other news of fracking and inadvertent consequences, Fortune reported last week that coronavirus is causing industrial havoc in China, which is reducing oil consumption, and therefore prices, and thereby, the point of fracking to begin with.

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