The chemicals used in fracking are a toxic brew of carcinogens that pollute both water and air, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Yale University, and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Fracking, a popular name for the drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, consists of injecting a proprietary blend of chemicals deep underground to fracture the bedrock and allow access to oil and gas inaccessible to conventional drilling techniques. New technologies combined with declining reserves of easier to extract oil have led to a boom in the practice, particularly in North America.
“Previous studies have examined the carcinogenicity of more selective lists of chemicals,” lead author Nicole Deziel said. “To our knowledge, our analysis represents the most expansive review of carcinogenicity of hydraulic fracturing-related chemicals in the published literature.”
Will fracking boom cause childhood cancer surge?
For the new study, researchers reviewed the scientific research on the carcinogenicity of 143 different air pollutants and 1,177 different water pollutants known to be released during the process of fracking, or to be contained in fracking wastewater.
When fracking is completed, changes in pressure cause nearly all the injected water to flow back to the surface. This water contains not just the fracking-specific chemicals, but also heavy metals, radioactive isotopes and volatile organics picked up from thousands of feet below the surface.
Alarmingly, there was insufficient cancer safety data available to make an assessment for more than 80 percent of the chemicals tested.
Among the remaining 20 percent, the researchers found that 55 different chemicals fell into the category of known, probable or possible human carcinogens. A shocking 20 of these have been linked specifically to leukemia or lymphoma.
The findings have grave implications for human health. Fracking now takes place in 30 separate states, with more than 15 million people living within a mile of a fracking well in the United States alone. A study by Environment America found that more than 650,000 children attend schools within a mile of a fracking well in nine separate states.
“Because children are a particularly vulnerable population, research efforts should first be directed toward investigating whether exposure to hydraulic fracturing is associated with an increased risk,” Deziel said.
“Childhood leukemia in particular is a public health concern related to [fracking], and it may be an early indicator of exposure to environmental carcinogens due to the relatively short disease latency and vulnerability of the exposed population.”
The researchers are expanding their research by testing air and water samples from a community near a fracking well, to look for evidence of exposure to the identified carcinogens.
Exposure likely widespread
Anyone living near a fracking well is likely exposed to the air pollutants identified, but what about the water pollution? The amount of wastewater generated by fracking operations is enormous, with a single well producing up to 4 million gallons. This adds up fast; Pennsylvania alone has nearly 8,000 active fracking wells.
Typically, fracking wastewater is injected back underground. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 2 billion gallons of wastewater are injected nationwide every single day.
A recent study by researchers from Duke University, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, suggests that yes, people in fracking regions are being exposed to wastewater chemicals. The study found that millions of gallons of wastewater spill each year, contaminating rivers, streams and groundwater. In North Dakota alone, there were 3,900 accidental spills – roughly one spill per three wells. Nationwide, the researchers found evidence of more than 21,000 spills between 2009 and 2014, resulting in the dumping of more than 180 million gallons of wastewater.
The real figure is much higher, they warned, as many spills are unreported. Spills on Indian reservations are particularly likely to go unreported, they noted, even though more than a quarter of U.S. oil and gas fields sit on reservation land.