The war over hydraulic fracturing (fracking), like most environmental issues, is more focused on propaganda than fact. Yet, unlike other fossil fuel debates, fracking is the first in which the health of everyday Amerians must be considered as a direct trade-off. Despite numerous industry assurances about its safety, the first retrospective reports on the health effects of fracking paint a grim picture for the future of Americans living near unconventional gas operations.
There is no escaping the simple truth that the fossil fuel industry is dirty. Beyond the pollution it leaves behind, the biological effects of exposure to petroleum and its by-products are some of the worst known.
Data concerning the adverse health effects of petroleum date back to 1931 – a time when medical statistics hadn’t even been invented yet. Studies published since unanimously agree that petroleum is a major source of Group 1 carcinogens and that petroleum workers have increased rates of bladder cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, multiple myeloma, and overall morbidity.
With the advent of major fracking operations accompanying the 2005 Clean energy bill, normal American homes were suddenly exposed to both the dangers of raw petroleum products as well as the chemical cocktail used for fracking. Reports since have identified numerous pollutants in drinking water, soil, and air samples near fracking wells.
The one argument that has raged on since the Clean Energy Bill concerns the chemical additives used in the fracking propellant and if they pose a danger to human health. This propellant is pumped underground at high pressures to fracture shale deposits and open cracks into new gas deposits. Opponents fixate on the harmful effects of these compounds if a human were to drink or inhale them. Fracking proponents often counter that these compounds are found in simple applications, such as the use of ethylene glycol in antifreeze. (At the same time, ethlyene glycol was a working scientist’s choice poison for her colleague).
This debate is misplaced and obscures the greater issues that we should be talking about.
First, just because we are familiar with petroleum products does not mean that they are safe. They are deadly to both humans and the environment.
Since fracking wells are now open within feet of neighboring homes, inhabitants are not only exposed to liquid petroleum run-off, such as the 50,000 gallon spill into the Yellowstone, they are also unwittingly exposed to airborne volatile organics (the gases normally released from petroleum rigs). These volatiles are responsible for many of the cancers seen in petroleum workers, and cancer rates in close proximity to fracking wells are likely to spike in another 10-20 years.
High concentrations of volatiles in the air are an unavoidable result of petroleum drilling. No matter how clean extraction methods are, small organic volatiles will always leak into the environment. The situation progressively worsens when extraction becomes sloppy. In this case, an explosion in the number of new drilling sites has stretched safety regulators thin. Accidents have already happened on a regular basis, and the situation will only worsen as more wells are drilled.
Beyond the intrinsic effects of petroleum exposure, the next health concern can be appreciated by anyone with a class in chemistry: Molecules don’t just bounce around, they react with each other, and the more components a chemical system has, the more unpredictable it becomes.
While the fracking propellant does indeed contain many simple compounds used in other applications, it uses them in an unregulated manner that has the potential to produce thousands of toxic chemical intermediates – even before the propellant reaches the oil. Once it hits petroleum at 9000 psi, the combination of reactive molecules and high energy hydrocarbons could lead to the formation of millions of chemicals, and none of them would be good for health.
To illustrate this point, consider common household bleach. Scientifically known as hypochlorite, bleach mixed with glass cleaner produces deadly chloramines. Mix it instead with drain cleaner and you will produce chlorine gas – the gas used for chemical warfare.
The same potential is magnified in the fracking propellant. All of a sudden, fixatives such as glutaraldehyde, free radical anions such as ammonium persulfate, strong acids such as hydrochloric acid, and strongly oxidizing peroxides are mixed with extremely energy dense hydrocarbons.
No one in a sane chemistry laboratory would mix any two of these compounds, let alone hundreds. Yet all are proudly displayed in the fracking chemical registry. You could even go so far as to look up the materials safety data sheet for each chemical, in which it is explicitly stated to not mix them with other chemicals on the fracking list.
When confronted with obvious scientific facts like this, supporters of fracking argue that only very low concentrations of these compounds would be present around the wells. This argument rarely holds scientific weight – our bodies were never designed to detoxify any amount of volatile organic compounds. Furthermore, no objective assessment has yet to show that these compounds truly are at low concentrations near wells.
Meanwhile, after 10 years of intensive shale oil development, enough data has been collected for epidemiologists to begin understanding how unconventional gas operations affect our health.
Of chief concern are the volatile organic compounds and heavy metals found in both the air and water surrounding wells – these compounds are well-established developmental and reproductive toxins. Results from a study on one rural region of Colorado showed that birth defects were 30% more common for people living within 10 km of a fracking well. Another survey conducted in Washington County, Pennsylvania found that people living less than a mile from fracking wells were 4 times more likely to have skin conditions, twice as likely to have breathing issues, and reported an average of 2 times as many health symptoms compared to those living more than a mile away.
As if exposure to petroleum and fracking chemicals were concerning enough, even the silica (sand) used in the fracking propellant is harmful. A survey of 11 sites found that airborne silica concentrations exceeded OSHA permitted levels, sometimes up to 10 times the level. This inhalable silica is responsible for inflamed lungs and can be a major cancer risk factor.
All told, the current statistics paint a grim picture of living or working in proximity to fracking wells. These people are at higher risk of developmental defects, skin rashes, and upper respiratory problems, let alone the health effects that haven’t been tested yet.
Image: The most realistic way to think about all petroleum products