Hydraulic fracturing, generally called ‘fracking”, is an efficient process for recovering natural gas from rock deep underground. Natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal or oil, so it can be better for the environment than those other fossil fuels. However, fracking brings its own environmental costs. This article outlines the many reasons why fracking is anything but harmless.
Exposure to Benzene and Related Compounds:
The cancer risk of exposure to BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes) compounds is known. Those chemicals have a role in fracking, which means they can leak into the air or into groundwater. Many other fracking chemicals pose risks if they get into the air, soil, or water.
Toxic Waste Storage:
Fracking produces heavily contaminated water that is often stored above ground in pits. The chemicals in that toxic waste aren’t always identified, because of intellectual property laws, but the chemicals that are known can cause a variety of health problems if the fracking waste leaks.
Excessive Use of Water:
Fracking uses huge amounts of water mixed with various synthetic chemicals. The water source can be the same one that people use for drinking and bathing, as well as for agriculture. Natural water sources that are key parts of the ecosystem can be severely reduced by the demand for water. The problem is compounded in areas where water is relatively scarce.
Safety Risk to Workers from Well Blowouts:
Explosions and toxic gases are environmental hazards, and real safety hazards at well sites. Aside from any air pollution that might result, the explosions sometimes kill or injure workers at the well sites.
Explosion and Fire Risk:
Methane gas leaks don’t just occur at the well site. Leaks have shown up in water wells and even in homes near well sites. At least a couple of people have been injured in explosions caused by methane getting in their water wells. A Texas man was injured after methane, allegedly from a nearby fracking site, exploded in his well shed.
Ozone Pollution from Wells:
Wyoming’s air quality near some drilling sites is worse than in notoriously polluted cities like Los Angeles. Wyoming recorded an ozone level of 124 parts per billion (ppb) in one case. Other readings around the same time were 104 ppb and 116 ppb. The Environmental Protection Agency considers 75 parts per billion the safe limit for ozone exposure.
Workers Exposed to Toxic Chemicals:
The health risks from breathing traces of toxic chemicals or ozone are exacerbated for people who work at the fracking sites. Those workers are going to be elevated risk of respiratory illness and cancer because of their exposure. Air pollution is not the only environmental health hazard either. The solvents and other liquids can cause skin rashes and other, more serious, health problems even if they aren’t ingested.
Injection of fracking wastewater into deep oil and gas wells can cause earthquakes, typically small ones. Nevertheless, those earthquakes can be a safety hazard. A woman in Oklahoma was injured in an earthquake she alleges was caused by fracking.
The contaminated water that a fracking well has to be disposed of eventually. Much of that water gets dumped into waste disposal wells, some of which are well constructed but others are not.
Exposure to Silica Dust:
Crystalline silica (sand) particles are extremely irritating to the lungs and nasal passages. Chronic exposure can cause a variety of serious respiratory illnesses, including an incurable lung disease called silicosis. Yet, sand is a key ingredient in fracking fluids.
Fracking wells release nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Those compounds lead to smog formation. Smog is a long-term threat to human health.
Heavy Metals and Other Emissions:
Well sites use diesel vehicles and pumps powered by diesel engines. Those relatively dirty engines add to other sources of air pollution. There can also be heavy metals and formaldehyde.
Volatile Organic Compounds:
The leftover fracking chemicals tend to be dumped in open pits, where chemicals in the water outgas. Some of these volatile organic compounds are likely unhealthy to breathe, at least for anyone directly downwind of the storage pits.
A single well can produce one million pounds of contaminated water. Fissures or cracks underground, or just porous sections of rock, allow fracking compounds to leak into water. The water table Some of that contaminated water ends up in surface water or in wells, where people or animals drink it.
Contamination of Wells:
The groundwater contamination is a problem in general, but more worrisome when it ends up in wells that rural residents use. Solvents and methane gas leak into wells, rendering it unsafe and possibly dangerous. The health effects of consuming many of those chemicals in tiny amounts are unknown. Other chemicals, like benzene, are known to be highly toxic.
Soil Contamination from Waste Pits:
Volatile organic compounds are only one issue with waste disposal pits. The waste products contain chemicals like benzene and toluene that are also harmful when they leach into the soil. A spill can naturally dump a large amount of the dangerous chemicals, which then drain into the topsoil.
Flaming Tap Water:
Fracking seems to produce many water quality issues. One of the most dramatic of those effects may be flammable tap water. This rare phenomenon comes about when methane or another flammable gas leaks into groundwater taken up into ground water. The gas leaks out when the water comes out of the tap, and it can then be ignited.
Methane Gas Emissions:
Methane is a greenhouse gas, one that has twenty-five times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide. Therefore, a massive decrease in CO2 emissions could be offset by a relatively small increase in atmospheric methane.
Risks to Wildlife:
Fish and birds can be put at risk by fracking activities in a couple of ways. Spills of fracking fluids or waste water contaminate streams and ponds. Even chemicals that are not immediately dangerous can cause health problems that inhibit the ability of exposed animals to reproduce. A 2011 review of 632 chemicals used in fracking, drilling, processing and found many that pose risks to humans and other animals.
Toxic Air Near Fracking Sites:
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PCHs) are useful in forcing natural gas out of the ground, but those compounds are also toxic. A test in Ohio found PCH levels in the air ten times higher than in otherwise similar parts of nearby Michigan with no natural gas operations.