"It was beautiful up until fracking started," said Nielle Hawkwood.

Nielle and Howard Hawkwood say their ranch outside Cochrane, Alta., northwest of Calgary, hasn't been the same since 2009, when fracking began.

Water started tasting strange and cows began to die off in large numbers. Instead of an average of two to three cows per year, they were losing closer to 20. By the spring of 2011, Nielle Hawkwood noticed her hair falling out in clumps every spring.

They had their soil tested and found a three-fold increase in the amount of chlorine, nitrogen and phosphorus. The testing also showed a large increase in the concentration of strontium and uranium.

The Hawkwoods blame fracking.

Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is the process that pushes a mixture of chemicals and water into shale rock deep beneath Earth's surface, triggering fractures or cracks in shale in order to extract oil or gas. This chemical mixture is returned after the rock has been fractured.

In a March 2015 study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health, researchers took six-hour average measurements of air pollution instead of the traditional 24-hour averages. They found pollution levels tend to spike at certain times of the day and under certain weather conditions, which previous studies had ignored.

Jessica Ernst

Jessica Ernst is waiting to learn whether the Supreme Court of Canada will hear her side in an anti-fracking lawsuit. (Jessica Ernst)

The study found that the closer people live to drilling sites and other gas production facilities, the more likely they are to exhibit symptoms of toxic exposure.

The study was based on observed conditions in Washington County, Pa., population 28,000, using emissions reports from nearby fracking sites and weather conditions over 14 months. The researchers also compared illness reports to the weather conditions and time of day.

They found that residents living in the area would have 300 toxic-level exposures, more than enough to account for the reported illnesses.

The most common health effects reported for residents living near fracking sites include shortness of breath, coughing, chronic fatigue and skin burning.

Another report last year by the Council of Canadian Academies on the environmental impacts of shale gas development states that the human health impacts have not been well studied. Fracking may "adversely affect water and air quality and community well-being," it says.

Regulator defends fracking

The Alberta Energy Regulator, which is responsible for enforcing industry policies, rejects claims that fracking affects human or animal health. The AER says hydraulic fracturing, in use in Alberta since the 1950s, is one of several well-established methods of recovering oil and gas.

But even in Texas, where Big Oil reigns supreme, there are concerns.

Last year, the Lubbock Board of Health released a report focusing on the human health impacts of air and water pollution as a result of fracking. It found that volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, associated with fracking could be linked to increased rates of leukemia and possible fetal abnormalities.

VOCs, chemicals found naturally in oil and gas, are also used to fracture wells. They include benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene.

The report found at six sites, 15 of 17 measurements of benzene alone were exceeding the allowable limit of one part per million for 15 minutes of exposure. The wells were giving off 200 times that.

Through examining more than 100,000 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado, the report concluded that babies born within a high concentration of wells saw a 30 per cent increase in congenital heart disease.

Opposing fracking is costly

But even with such mounting scientific evidence, whistleblowers are made to pay, with time as well as money.

Howard and Nielle Hawkwood

Howard and Nielle Hawkwood say their ranch outside Cochrane, Alta., northwest of Calgary, hasn't been the same since 2009 when fracking began. (Hans Asfeldt)

Jessica Ernst spent 30 years working in the oil and gas industry as an environmental specialist. In 2004, she documented what she calls non-compliance by Encana Corp., one of her former clients, with Alberta environmental regulations. She believes Encana knowingly injected chemicals into the drinking water in Rosebud, Alta., about 100 km northeast of Calgary.

Alberta regulators then sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ernst, accused her of making criminal threats against the regulator. She filed a lawsuit for what she alleges was a violation of her freedom-of-expression rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Now, Ernst is asking the Supreme Court of Canada to rule that the Alberta Court of Appeal was wrong last year when it found that the province's energy regulator is allowed to violate a citizen's fundamental freedoms. The Alberta government is opposing her.

Ernst says she has paid a heavy price to fight industry, using her retirement savings to pay legal bills that have soared past $300,000.

In Cochrane, Alta., the Hawkwoods continue to fight against fracking. They have written letters to all levels of government, joined community and provincial groups to educate people on fracking and met industry representatives.

But they say their efforts may be too late. Nobody, they say, knows what long-term damage fracking might do.

Michelle Leslie is a Munk Institute fellow in global journalism.