It’s hard to read anything about modern energy resources these days without coming across the term ‘hydraulic fracturing’ or ‘fracking’. It’s not a new process, and dates back to the 1940s, but recent developments in technology and concerns over energy shortages have made it much more practical today[sc:1]. However, while there are many advocates of the process who praise its economic benefits, it is also highly controversial, thanks mainly to its potential environmental impacts. These are many and frightening in the extreme, and include degrading air quality, the triggering of earthquakes, pollution and health risks from the numerous chemicals used in the process.
Fracking basically involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground in order to break apart the rock and release the valuable gas and is carried out across the globe, including the UK, the US, South Africa and New Zealand[sc:3]. The chemicals used to make up the fracturing fluid are varied and although the industry is keen to point out that the amounts are very small proportionally, the total levels can reach millions of gallons, making their effect that much more dramatic[sc:3]. In 2011, US Congress released a report that listed 29 toxic chemicals used in fracking so here’s a quick rundown of the most worrisome[sc:4].
A harmful substance that most people will be familiar with is lead and unfortunately it’s something which is quoted in the above report to have been used by at least one fracking company from 2005-2009. Lead is in both the US’s Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act for its carcinogenic properties, potential for causing reproductive problems and nerve disorders in adults, while it is also extremely harmful to children and can inhibit their neurological development[sc:5].
Eight highly toxic chemical have been found near fracking sites in several US sites that exceeded federal guidelines for safe use, with benzene being the most common and which is again a carcinogen[sc:6]. The study, published in the journal Environmental Health, revealed that one site had levels over five orders of magnitude greater than federal guidelines and which was attributed to leaky containment systems[sc:6]. Long term exposure to benzene can lead to bone marrow failure and leukaemia as well as cancer.
Similarly, hydrogen sulphide, which affects the brain and upper-respiratory system, was found at levels 90 to 60000 times greater than normal, and which can cause fatigue, eye irritation, dizziness and other problems after just one hour of exposure. Formaldehyde, again linked to cancer and used as a preservative and in building materials amongst other things, was found at levels 30 to 240 times normal. This was quoted as being at concentrations twice as high as during dissections conducted by medical students, and where most report respiratory irritation.
Diesel fuel is another contaminant listed in the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act but which is again used in the fracking process. More than 30 million gallons of the stuff were injected in wells across 19 US states, with skin contact alone causing itching, burning, and skin damage and with long exposures potentially leading to cancer.
Human health can also be affected indirectly through side effects of the chemicals involved in the fracking process, with several instances of groundwater contamination occurring at wells across the US. For example, in Wyoming in 2006, over 7 million cubic feet of methane was released from a blown gas well, with nearby groundwater soon found to be contaminated with hydrocarbon compounds (including benzene)[sc:7]. Also in Wyoming, local residents complained about water quality in 2011, prompting an EPA investigation which again found contaminants linked to fracking, including methane, ethane and phenol which can have effects including anorexia, skin inflammation and other issues[sc:8].
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as dangerous chemicals and fracking go, but even this cursory look at the issue reveals much to be concerned about. Exact problems associated with exposure are difficult to confirm, due to the length of time it takes for symptoms to appear, but it is apparent that increases in health issues are higher in individuals who have direct links to fracking. While the process is likely to continue due to its economic benefits, concerned citizens who live in the vicinity of wells might want to consider voicing their opinion on the subject, or even start thinking about moving.