Fracking is a buzz word found all over the the media at the moment. This articles aims to explain what the term means and considers what the potential impact could be to our drinking water.
Fracking is the term given to a process called high-volume hydraulic fracturing. It is a method used to obtain natural gas that is hidden in tiny pockets deep inside the Earth’s crust. Supporters of the fracking industry maintain that it creates jobs and boosts the economy, while critics worry that it is mostly unregulated and that risks of contamination to water are being underestimated. The following short clip explains clearly how the process of fracking works.
Fracking involves drilling a well into the thick rock far below the surface of the Earth. Once the well is complete the drilling continues horizontally, for as long as two miles in some cases. Next, a combination of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the well. This is done in enormous volumes, with millions of gallons of drinking water and energy being used in the process. This water becomes irreparably contaminated as a result of the fracking procedure. The mixture is pumped into the drilled tunnel at high pressure creating a multitude of tiny cracks in the rock, releasing the gas from it’s pockets.
The precise composition of chemicals used in this mixture are not published, but more than 600 different ones are used by various companies. The most common chemicals found are benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene, known at BTEX. They are associated with many health complaints.
The following breakdown of pollutants linked to fracking are listed below, as published by frackingandhealth.org
Pollutant – Methane
What is it? – Natural gas, can leak out of wells into the air and water, has no door
Health effect – When trapped in a house, can cause explosion & asphyxiation.
Pollutant – Hydrogen Sulfide
What is it? – May be found in natural gas and can leak out during fracking process, has a rotten egg odor at low levels in the air
Health Effect – Low levels= lung irritation – coughing, tears from the eyes, skin irritation, dizziness, headache. High levels= odor goes away, difficulty breathing, unconsciousness, and even death.
Pollutant – Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)
What is it? – Are found in the fluids used for fracking and can leak out during fracking process. These include chemicals such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, & mixed xylenes.
Health Effect – Respiratory issues, eye and skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness. VOC’s can mix with diesel fumes to make ozone (see below).
Pollutant – Particulate matter (PM 2.5)
What is it? – PM 2.5 are small pieces of pollution in the air that can be found near roads, dusty areas, or in smoke.
Health Effect – When these are breathed in, they can get stuck in the lungs and cause problems. These include asthma, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), premature death and cancer. It can also increase the chance of babies being born too early or too small.
Pollutant – Ground level ozone (smog)
What is it? – Ozone is made when VOCs mix with nitrogen oxide (a chemical found near fracking operations and in diesel exhaust).
Health Effect – When ozone is breathed in, it can cause problems breathing and worsen asthma and emphysema. Children and pregnant women are at greatest risk for having problems.
The fact that these chemicals are used far below the surface of the Earth is not enough to ensure that we will not be exposed to them and these harmful side effects. Water wells close to fracking sites are often contaminated. Some wells have been found to contain levels of methane 17 times higher near drilling sites compared to non-drilling sites. This is due in part to the gradual leaching of poisonous water from it’s underground stores into the ground, but is also due to human error, chemical spills and leaks. This is particularly concerning when more that 15 million Americans now live within a mile of a fracking well. The air is also contaminated with these chemicals when they are emitted into the atmosphere during the production of natural gas.
One of the most worrying side effects of water and air contamination due to fracking is the impact that is being measured on fertility rates. Pregnant mothers living close to fracking wells are also giving birth to children with higher than average birth defects, including problems with the heart and spine and low Apgar scores (a measurement of newborn responsiveness).
A study conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health, gathered evidence from rural areas of Colorado, which ranks as one of the areas with the highest densities of oil and gas wells in America.
“What we found was that the risk of congenital heart defects (CHD) increased with greater density of gas wells — with mothers living in the highest-density areas at greatest risk” ~Lisa McKenzie (research associate with the study).
Results indicated that “births to mothers in the most exposed areas had a 30 percent greater prevalence of CHDs than births to mothers with no wells in a 10-mile radius of their residence.”
Gary Wockner, a leading member of Colorado’s Clean Water Action team has publicly responded to the report. “This study suggests that if you want to have a healthy baby and you live near a fracking site, move.”
Children are more susceptible to the effects of the fracking chemicals as their bodies are growing so rapidly. Newly developing respiratory systems are also more vulnerable to the air borne contaminants.
Many residents of areas close to a fracking site, that find themselves suffering with side effects attributable to the chemicals mentioned here are offered compensation from energy companies in exchange for signing non disclosure agreements. This makes it difficult to gather accurate data of the number of individuals that are affected by symptoms such as nosebleeds, skin irritation, respiratory issues and headaches.
Often health providers are not given the breakdown of chemicals used in a particular fracking well, due to trade secret laws. This obstructs the treatment of individuals suffering with the side effects.
On its website, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association insists that fracking is safe. It lists a number of studies arguing that the controversial practice does not have a serious impact on human health.
“We agree there is public concern about the effects of oil and gas operations on health, including birth outcomes. Overall, we feel our study highlights interesting areas for further research and investigation but is not conclusive in itself.”
Despite these claims, you may be right to feel concerned if you live close to a fracking well. There are steps that you can take to protect yourself as much as possible. The main thing is to remain vigilant. Test your well water before any fracking takes place and then after each time the well is drilled. Be aware of any changes to the taste, smell, and colour of your water, working together with neighbours to share observations.
The same applies with air quality. Be mindful of any smoke, unusual smells and smog. Residents affected by shortness of breath, dizziness and skin irritations must see their doctor as soon as possible. Keep a journal of all observations and connect with the local community to share findings. Become a part of community meetings and groups, to stand together to protect your area.
Colorado have succeeded in banning drilling in five cities “creating frack-free zones where public health and property is better protected from this kind of dangerous industrial threat.”
It is possible to stand together and make sure we are heard by companies that could be irreparably damaging our planet. Keep informed and aware!
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