Unconventional natural gas and health

Hydraulic fracturing typically involves the drilling of wells vertically and then horizontally in the natural gas reserve, and the injection of large volume of fracking fluid (water, sand and various chemicals) to fracture the rock formation, freeing the trapped natural gas. Northeastern British Columbia is an area of intensive unconventional natural gas exploitation by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The region sits on an important source of natural gas, the Montney Formation. Approximately 30,000 wells have been drilled so far in Northeastern British Columbia. Information on impacts of hydraulic fracturing activity is limited, but recent literature highlighted the risk of environmental contamination. Some chemicals used or associated with hydraulic fracturing may contaminate the soil by accidental spills, leaks, or during disposal of hydraulic fracturing fluids. It is also known that hydraulic fracturing operations can release volatile organic compounds such as benzene, as well as trace elements naturally occurring in the rock formation. Many of these chemicals are known or suspected reproductive and development toxicants, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and respiratory irritants.


Communities and First Nations in Northeastern British Columbia raised concerns about the health effects associated with this industry. To answer the concerns of the communities regarding hydraulic fracturing, we have developed multiple research projects.

Gestational exposure to chemicals related to hydraulic fracturing and their endocrine disrupting potential in Northeastern British Columbia: the EXPERIVA study


EXPERIVA is a transdisciplinary project combining exposure assessment, toxicological and sociological approaches. As part of the study, 85 pregnant women living in Northeastern British Columbia were recruited in 2019. The participants provided urine, hair and nails samples. They also installed a passive air sampler in their residence, and we collected tap water samples. 


The EXPERIVA study aims to:

1) Assess exposure to volatile organic compounds and trace elements in these 85 pregnant women

2) Assess the endocrine disruption of environmentally-relevant concentrations of volatile organic compounds and trace elements using cellular models of fetal development

3) Explore the associations between the density and proximity of hydraulic fracturing wells and exposure levels, and between exposure levels and birth outcomes

4) Explore the social inequities related to exposure to contaminants associated with hydraulic fracturing

Principal Investigators:

Marc-André Verner (Université de Montréal - School of Public Health)

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin (University of Toronto Scarborough)


Community partners:

West Moberly First Nations

Saulteau First Nations

Treaty 8 Tribal Association

Associations between density and proximity of hydraulic fracturing wells and birth outcomes in Northeastern British Columbia

There is not a lot of information in the scientific literature regarding exposure to contaminants associated with hydraulic fracturing and the potential health impacts of that industry. However, the available toxicological data and existing epidemiological studies show that reproduction and fetal development might be affected. As part of our ongoing efforts to answer the legitimate concerns of healthcare providers and communities in Northeastern British Columbia regarding hydraulic fracturing, we investigated the associations between maternal residential proximity to hydraulic fracturing wells and birth outcomes using birth records data over a period of 10 years. 

This is the first epidemiological study in Canada on hydraulic fracturing and health outcomes. We found potential association with increased odds of preterm birth and reduced birthweight. Currently, we are investigating the associations between maternal proximity to hydraulic fracturing activity and endocrine-related birth defects, as well as maternal depression and anxiety.


Principal Investigator:

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin (University of Toronto Scarborough)

Community partners:

Treaty 8 Tribal Association  

Related publication:

Caron-Beaudoin, É., Whitworth, K. W., Bosson-Rieutort, D., Wendling, G., Liu, S., & Verner, M. A. (2020). Density and proximity to hydraulic fracturing wells and birth outcomes in Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 1-9.

Is there an association between exposure to hydraulic fracturing and exacerbations of asthma in Northeastern British Columbia?

Since the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing activity, epidemiological research on hydraulic fracturing and human health effects has been playing "catch-up", with over 60% of peer-reviewed research published since 2014. A growing number of studies found associations between proximity to hydraulic fracturing activity and negative birth and pregnancy outcomes, self-reported health symptoms, childhood hematologic cancers, hospital admission and respiratory illnesses including asthma exacerbations. 

Our study goal is to examine the association of hydraulic fracturing activity with exacerbations of asthma among individuals with a diagnosis living in Northeastern British Columbia. Our objective is to link individual-level administrative health data to a commonly-used surrogate of hydraulic fracturing exposure measure that I have used during my postdoctoral fellowship (see project on hydraulic fracturing and birth outcomes). 

Principal Investigator:

Dr Ulrike Meyer, physician (University of British Columbia)

My role:



Pilot study on gestational exposure to contaminants associated with hydraulic fracturing in Northeastern British Columbia

Related publications:

Caron-Beaudoin, É., Valter, N., Chevrier, J., Ayotte, P., Frohlich, K., & Verner, M. A. (2018). Gestational exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in Northeastern British Columbia, Canada: a pilot study. Environment International, 110, 131-138.

Caron-Beaudoin, É., Bouchard, M., Wendling, G., Barroso, A., Bouchard, M. F., Ayotte, P., ... & Verner, M. A. (2019). Urinary and hair concentrations of trace metals in pregnant women from Northeastern British Columbia, Canada: a pilot study. Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology, 29(5), 613-623.


Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

Fonds de recherche du Québec - santé (FRQS)

Rural Coordination Centre of British Columbia

The Lloyd Jones Collins Foundation

New Initiatives Grant: Université de Montréal Public Health Research Institute