The hydrofracking or ‘fracking’ boom has dramatically changed the U.S. energy landscape. Fracking involves injecting fluid into a body of shale rock to create fissures from which natural gas and oil can be extracted. During the process, some of the injection fluid returns to the surface, along with byproducts from the shale itself, such as naturally occurring radioactive materials. While natural gas is seen by the Obama administration as a ‘bridge fuel’ to a low carbon economy, peer-reviewed scientific research is beginning to demonstrate the significant health risks to oil and gas workers, as well as to the communities and homes in close proximity to these wells.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), workers at fracking locations for oil and gas are regularly exposed to high levels of benzene, which is a known carcinogen. When researchers from the agency, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opened the hatches of these wells to inspect the tank and measured airborne benzene levels, the majority of the samples were over the 0.1 part per million (ppm) average concentration level recommended by NIOSH. Exposure to benzene is especially troubling because at high concentrations, benzene is poisonous to the nervous system, liver and kidneys, and can even affect normal cell activity. Dr. Robert Harrison, director of Occupational Health Services at the University of California San Francisco, said, "With the rapid expansion of oil and gas production in the U.S., [benzene exposure has risks] that we would want to pay attention to."

In a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, the NIOSH researchers said that the benzene levels at the wells "reached concentrations that, depending on the length of the exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers." The results of this study are only one example of the numerous negative consequences to workers’ health in the oil and gas sector. For instance, during a typical two-hour shift, a worker will open the hatch of the well and stand directly over the opening between one and four times an hour. During this time, he will breathe in these toxic fumes for anywhere between two to five minutes. While no long-term studies on these workers have been conducted, the sum of all of these short periods of exposure adds up to a dangerously high level of exposure to the toxic chemicals that are used in the fracking process.

Previous NIOSH research in 2012 studied the effects of crystalline silica found at fracking sites. Exposure to this substance could lead to silicosis—a deadly lung disease—lung cancer, and other ailments. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is in the process of finalizing a new silica rule, these more stringent standards face opposition from several industries. According to NIOSH, acute chemical exposures (to chemicals such as benzene and crystalline silica) during flowback operations in the Williston Basin of North Dakota and Montana appear to have led to the death of at least four workers.

Unfortunately, the health effects of fracking extend beyond those working at the well-sites. In the rush to tap this new energy source, researchers have scrambled to study the potential health effects to communities. Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University found an increase in the prevalence of congenital heart defects and neural tube deficits in newborns whose mothers live within a ten-mile radius of numerous oil and gas wells. These birth defects are attributed to the emissions of volatile organic carbon (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), and nitrogen oxides (NO2) during the production of natural gas.

Overall, the United States is making progress with air toxics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported in its most recent Urban Air Toxics report to Congress that millions of pounds of hazardous air pollutants have been removed from the air from both stationary and mobile sources in the last two decades. However, the U.S. fracking boom presents a significant health threat to workers, local communities, and individual households situated near the wells. These scientific studies, as well as numerous others, highlight the potential health risks associated with oil and gas wells. They also underscore the need for EPA’s continued work on toxic air pollutants, and the need for stricter federal regulations of fracking.


Author: Angelo Bardales