The toxins used in oil and gas drilling

Because the federal government has chosen not to regulate fracking and states are just beginning to step up to regulation, energy companies are not required to reveal the chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process. Until disclosure requirements change, we simply don’t know the range of toxins we are exposed to, either through the air or through our groundwater.

But there’s quite a lot of literature on the toxins generally used in oil and gas drilling, and I thought it would be worthwhile to call them out here. Even if we don’t know the exact chemical composition of the fluids incorporated into fracking water, we can be certain that the chemicals mentioned below will be included, as well as others we don’t yet know about.

The primary source for this post is an excellent article by Don Lieber at EcoWatch. He lists the following chemicals as specifically used in fracking:

  • Benzene is one of the largest-volume petrochemical solvents used in the fossil fuel industry. Exposure through the air or through groundwater causes substantial long-term health problems. According to the Center for Disease Control, these are the long-term effects of benzene exposure:
  • The major effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. (Long-term exposure means exposure of a year or more.) Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.
  • Some women who breathed high levels of benzene for many months had irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of their ovaries. It is not known whether benzene exposure affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men.
  • Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.

Lieber points out that these effects will take place long after drilling starts..  “The use of benzene, like other toxins used in oil and gas, is particularly insidious because the effects…take many years to manifest. And due to lax regulations, these products have been rushed into use long before any long-term testing has been possible.”

  • Formaldehyde is commonly used in fracking although usually not disclosed. In 2006, the fracking industry was granted waivers from federal clean air and water regulations (known as The Halliburton Loophole) — since then, it has operated with few, if any, reporting requirements regarding the chemicals it uses. But drillers use it, and here’s how it affects human health, according to the EPA:

Formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans.  Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions.

Again, the most serious effects are long-term.

  • Silica is commonly used in large quantities during fracking operations. Each stage of the process requires hundreds of thousands of pounds of silica quartz–containing sand. Millions of pounds of this “frac sand” may be used for a single well.

According to OSHA, exposure to silica has the following impacts on human health:

Inhalation of respirable crystalline silica particles has long been known to cause silicosis, a disabling, non-reversible and sometimes fatal lung disease. Respirable crystalline silica also causes lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated crystalline silica as carcinogenic to humans, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program has concluded that respirable crystalline silica is known to be a human carcinogen….In addition, exposure to respirable crystalline silica has been associated with other respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including bronchitis and emphysema), as well as kidney and immune system diseases.

Despite this, there are no federal or state standards for the amount of silica in ambient air. In fact, regulations seem to be headed in an entirely different direction. In Pennsylvania, a key fracking state, physicians, by law,  can obtain information about chemicals used in the fracking process that may be relevant to a patient’s care, but only after requesting the information in writing and executing a nonstandardized confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement drafted by the drilling companies. The New England Journal of Medicine decries this practice: “By reducing health care decisions to a series of mandates, lawmakers devalue the patient–physician relationship.”

As fracking technology advances, the use of silica is increasing. New fracking techniques are currently being developed that require shorter and wider fracks that use higher volumes of silica.

  • Radon. Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas released into local groundwater and air during fracking operations. According to the EPA, radon is the leading cause of cancer in non-smokers, responsible for about 21,000 deaths per year. Higher levels of radon can be seen around pipelines and storage facilities.

What’s important to understand here is that the deleterious health effects of all these chemicals are long term. They are ignored by legislators and denied by the oil and gas industry.

People who travel through the Bakken report chemical smells that burn the nostrils and lungs. They are most likely talking about the chemicals described here.

ECA and other companies will come in, tout their safety records, spend two or three decades pulling out the extractable oil and gas, and then leave a ticking population health time bomb in their wake.

Unless they are prevented from starting. Take heed.

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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4 Responses to The toxins used in oil and gas drilling

  1. not a shill says:

    The chemical smell reported in the Bakken is most likely hydrogen sulfide. It has an acrid, rotten egg-like odor, and causes the symptoms described above. It is the most universally recognized hazard in the industry, aside from perhaps fires/explosions. I worked all over the Bakken for a couple of years, and H2S is pretty common in certain areas, especially near older (20-30 years) wells.

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