XTO Exxon fracking infrastructure, Captina, Ohio. By Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance

Communities must deal with a multitude of health risks from fracking. Physicians for Social Responsibility has stated that regulating fracking more closely will not help alleviate all the health risks that exposed citizens and workers will suffer from this process. They believe fracking “must be phased out.”

Also, notable that unlike most other industries, fracking is basically unregulated, especially after the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted the use of the Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate fracking. To date, fracking is exempted or excluded from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund Act), Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and Toxic Release Inventory.

Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund Act), Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and Toxic Release Inventory.

Fracking causes the release of toxic air emissions such as volatile organic compounds which include carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. Some of the air pollutants lead to the formation of ground level ozone. Additionally, fugitive emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from fracking operations are significantly accelerating the climate crisis. Early research showed that between 0.05% and 8% of methane from unconventional oil and gas development escapes over a well’s lifetime. More recent work found that fugitive methane emissions range from 2.8% to 17.3%.

Fracking is removing significant quantities of ground and surface water and polluting both ground and surface water. “Each day in the United States over 2 billion gallons of pressurized fracking fluids are pumped underground to extract oil and gas or to inject extracted wastewater into disposal wells.” This leads to ground water contamination and diminishes the water quality of surface water. The toxic chemicals used for fracking as well as the heavy metals, bromide, and radionuclides in the extracted produced water (waste water) are the main contaminants. 

Air emissions

Studies show that living in close proximity to fracking well pads causes an increase in respiratory illness. This is particularly true for those living within a half mile radius of the sites. They are exposed to aliphatic hydrocarbons, xylenes and trimethylbenzenes especially during well closures.

In Pennsylvania, a study found that people who live near active fracking operations are 1.5 to 4 times more likely to suffer asthma attacks, and the group closest to the well pad had the highest risk. The practice of flaring fugitive gas emissions is also a major generator of air pollutants. When the waste gas is burned off, it creates nitrogen dioxide, a potent air pollutant. It also emits formaldehyde and benzene, both of which are contributors to creating ozone. “In 2016, the EPA acknowledged that it had dramatically underestimated health-damaging air pollutants from flaring operations.” Research shows that the pollutants from fracking and flaring can pollute the air hundreds of miles downwind.

Fracking air compressor on Butler County flaring. By Ted Auch / Fractracker Alliance

Over 100 studies have documented nearly 200 chemical compounds in the air around fracking sites. Sixty-one of these chemicals are classified as hazardous air pollutants and some are known carcinogens. Other pollutants related to fracking operations include diesel exhaust, fine particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide gas, and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants can damage the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. 

Residents living near oil and gas activities are also exposed to ambient radiative particles. There is also an increase in radon gas where areas are being fracked. “Two studies in the Marcellus shale region found a positive association between unconventional oil and gas activities and indoor levels of Radon-222, a gaseous decay product of Ra-226”. The Ohio Radon Information System supports the theory that areas that are fracked do have higher indoor radon levels. The data was taken from 118,421 individual homes from 2007 to 2014 based on zip code locations.

“The shorter the distance a home is from a fracking well, the higher the radon concentration. The larger the distance, the lower the radon concentration,” said Ashok Kumar, distinguished university professor and chair of the University of Toledo Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Water pollution

Fracking wastewater, known as produced water, has been found to contain water soluble radionuclides. “Elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with strontium, radium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopic compositions are also present in the Marcellus shale wastewaters”.

Peer reviewed studies show that watersheds surrounding frack well pads test positive for radioactive substances. “Drilling companies deliberately spread wastewater on roads and fields. Pollutants from the wastewater can then contaminate local waterways. Drilling operators sometimes spray wastewater on dirt and gravel roads to control dust or on paved roads to melt ice.

Fracking wastewater impoundment pond in Lycoming County, Pa. By Karen Edelstein / FracTracker Alliance

The use of PFAS and/or PFAS precursor substances in oil and gas operations adds a highly potent substance to an already long list of toxic chemicals used in drilling and fracking. The industry has knowingly used these compounds but failed to disclose this fact for years. The 2021 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility says these compounds, which are stored in the body indefinitely, are linked to low birth weights, cancer, immune issues, and endocrine disruption.

Additional health issues include increased truck traffic, noise, dust exposures, and large amounts of artificial light on well frack pads which impairs sleep.

Safety issues and accidents

Wells have been known to fail. Studies of Pennsylvania Marcellinus wells conducted between 2005 and 2013 show, based on inspections, 6.3% have had “infringements” to well barrier or integrity. In another study of 3533 Pennsylvania wells monitored between 2008 and 2011, there were 85 examples of cement or casing failures, four blowouts, and two cases of gas venting.

Data from Penn Environment showed that in Pennsylvania “between January 1, 2008, and September 30, 2016, fracking companies together committed a combined total of 4,351 violations, or an average of 1.4 violations per day. Between 2008 and 2016, just 17% of violations of rules meant to protect the environment and public health at unconventional wells were accompanied with a fine. When they were, the median fine was only $5,263.”

These accidents included allowing toxic chemicals to flow off drilling sites, contaminating drinking water (283 cases between 2007 and 2016), allowing fracking waste to flow directly into a waterway from a company pipe, and contaminating underground water by disposing of wastes in a leaking injection well.

Frack well explosion in Belmont County, Ohio, in 2018. By Ohio Highway Patrol

One of the largest releases of methane gas occurred in February 2018 when an XTO Energy well pad exploded in Belmont County, Ohio. Residents within a mile radius had to evacuate as the well leaked methane gas into the atmosphere for nearly a month.

It has been over a decade since high pressure hydraulic fracking began in earnest in the Appalachian region. Since then, countless studies show that this process is not healthy for humans or the environment.

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