Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Fracking: Health Effects & Worker Safety

Fracking: Health Effects and Worker Safety

By Patricia M. DeMarco

{Summary of remarks at The Battle of Homestead Foundation screening of “Gaswork” by Josh Fox on August 25, 2016}

 

 

Hydraulic fracturing (Fracking) for natural gas is touted as the centerpiece of American energy leadership for climate change and economic security. Sadly, this entire industry rests on “The Haliburton Loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which grants exemptions from seven major federal statutes intended to protect public health and the environment, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Toxic Release Inventory provisions. The Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act to close the Haliburton Loophole has been introduced by Senator Casey (D) PA, every year since 2011 with bipartisan support, but has been kept in committee without a hearing.

 

Fracking Pollution Sources:

Fracking pollution occurs at all stages of the process: site access and preparation, material transportation, drilling operations, production and processing, gas compression, pipelines, and combustion at the final point of use. Between 2005 and 2016, 137,000 wells have been drilled in 20 states. The industry operates in rural areas of the country, separating the various components of the industrial process to avoid consolidated review of environmental impacts. In many jurisdictions, as is true in Pennsylvania, local government entities are limited in what restrictions they can place on fracking activities. Unfettered by normal environmental and health protections, the industry has expanded rapidly.

 

In spite of industry assertions of safe practices, evidence of widespread environmental and health harm is accumulating.

  1. Climate Effects. Approximately 4% of the gas produced by fracking is lost through leaks and flaring at the well site, equivalent to 100 million tons of carbon dioxide. Fossil methane is a potent contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change with a 105 times greater impact than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

 

  1. Surface water and groundwater pollution. Groundwater pollution occurs from well casing leaks, estimated to have a 5% per year failure rate, and leaks through the fractured rock.(Ref) Water contaminants can be mobilized from older pollution sources such as mine drainage from the hydraulic fracturing shocks. Surface water pollution can occur from several paths including discharges and spills at the well site, wastewater disposal, and transportation spills.

 

Water pollutants associated with fracking disharges include carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, butoxyethanol, and zylene; toxic chemicals including boric acid, methanol, dissolved methane; and 120 endocrine disrupting chemicals such as naphthalene. (Ref)

  1. Air pollution. Drilling gas wells, producing the gas, and completing the wells releases fine particulates, and volatile organic compounds. These also come from spills on site, produced water evaporation pits, flaring gas at the well site, surface transfers, compression stations and processing facilities. In addition, thousands of diesel truck trips for hauling sand, chemicals and materials contribute to local air pollution.

 

  1. Ground pollution. Produced water from the fracking wells, labeled “Dirty water” legally can be discharged onto the roads for dust control or ice control. Sludge from evaporation pits goes into landfills and some produced water can be added to municipal waste in landfills. The process of developing access roads and pipelines has fragmented habitat in forests and parks, degraded farmland, and contributed to land erosion. Common contaminants include heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, bromides, radioactive isotopes of radon, boron, uranium and chromium, and chlorides from heavy brine.

 

Hydraulic Fracturing Health Concerns

Fracking environment and health effects come from the environmental disruptions of the process, the chemicals used in the slick water hydraulic fracturing process, and the contaminants that are extracted from the shale and brought to the surface with the gas. The most pervasive health effect comes from degradation of the environment and the systems that generate fresh water, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species that support life on Earth. Fracking uses about 500,000 gallons of fresh water per well, causing stress on watersheds, domestic and agricultural water needs, especially in drought stricken areas.

 

About 649 chemicals are associated with the fracking process. Of these, 75% cause acute skin, eye and respiratory irritation; 40-50% affect the brain, nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems and kidney functions; and 37% are known endocrine disruptors. 25% of the most common fracking chemicals cause cancers and mutations that may take years to emerge. Those most clearly associated with fracking include silicosis, lung cancer, liver cancer, leukemia, Hodgkins lymphoma and reproductive disorders. These are especially of concern because they increase the incidence of birth defects, low birth weight, miscarriages and stillbirths. These kinds of health effects are reported at statistically significant elevated levels among populations within a mile of fracking operations, potentially affecting about 9.4 million Americans.

 

About 170 thousand workers in the oil and gas industry are exposed to harmful chemicals as part of their regular work experience. Fatal injuries occur at a rate seven times higher than the rate for general industrial workers. Trucking accidents happen when the driver is overcome by exposure to volatile organic compounds during transport of wastes with no cautionary hazard placards. Workers suffer from strange painful rashes and neurological disorders without any idea of what caused them. NIOSH reports that 47% of workers at 111 sites they examined were exposed to levels of fine silicone dust at ten times the allowable level. Many suffered from silicosis and lung cancers from inhaling the fine sand used for propant in fracking. Workers exposure to benzene levels far in excess of the 0.1parts per million standard for occupational exposure was found at 88% of work sites. Most of the workers in the fracking industry are not represented by a union, have no advocate for their health and safety, and often are facing few alternatives to working in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

 

Because of the Haliburton Loophole, the fracking health exposures to both the public and the workers are legal, but it is not ethical or morally right to allow such a broad segment of the population to be affected so harshly.

 

See the slide presentation of this article here:

8-25-2016 Fracking & Health

 

Data Sources:

OSHA Info Sheet “HAZARD ALERT: Silica Exposure during Hydraulic fracturing” March 25, 2016.   https://www.osha.gov/dts/infosheets/