Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Hydrofracking: Radiation Risks

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a process for accessing gas and oil deep within the earth. The process involves creating a well and drilling about one mile deep into the ground. Once it has been dug deep enough, cement is poured into the opening around a steel pipe to create a barrier between the fracking process and underground water sources. Then the drilling continues deeper into the earth, this time at an angle until it becomes horizontal. The length of that horizontal drilling can last up to three miles in length. Next, more cement is poured around the hole to create a barrier with the surrounding environment. Then a perforating gun is sent down the well into the horizontal section. There, it punctures the bedrock, creating multiple cracks that are 30 inches deep.

These cracks, or fissures, are created so that water, sand, and chemicals can be sent down into those newly made cracks. The water mixture causes further fracturing, like giant tree branches, in the bedrock that goes deep into the ground and releases oil and gas. The resource-intensive process can use up to 9.7 million gallons of water per one well. In addition, the wastewater that comes back from this process is radioactive and full of toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health.

All that water then becomes unusable because of the naturally occurring radioactivity brought up from the ground with the waste. The health effects of the radioactive wastewater on humans are vast. The radioactivity is caused by the “naturally-occurring radionuclides” that are made up of uranium, thorium, and radium. These elements are hazardous to human health and can cause adverse health effects and even death with exposure to high levels, or concentrations, of the chemicals in the fracking water. Other than the radioactive chemicals found in fracking water, the industry also mixes over 1000 other chemicals into the water. These can include, but are not limited to, lead, PFAS (forever chemicals), ammonia, hormone disrupting chemicals, diesel, benzene and diesel. Exposure to these chemicals in the fracking wastewater can cause cancers, such as leukemiahematologic (blood)urinary, and thyroid cancers. Exposure can also cause developmental health issues in children and neuromotor skill impairment. Heart disease is another area of concern, with communities close to hydrofracking sites having significantly higher heart attack rates.

Currently, most of the wastewater is stored in underground wells, but this storage solution can seep into the water supply in a variety of ways, as discussed in a peer-reviewed article published by Environmental Health Perspectives. Radioactive fracking wastewater can end up in so many different areas, from drinking water to consumer items. The reason why this is allowed has to do with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005 and the creation of the Halliburton Loophole. The loophole prevented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating the fracking industry or its wastewater. That means radioactive wastewater can end up in drinking water, but the agency cannot confront the company responsible.

Despite claims from fracking companies that the fracking-contaminated water is appropriately handled, radioactive wastewater finds its way back into the environment. The fracking wastewater can even be found in store-bought items. For example, the product AquaSalina is a de-icer that is sold in stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s and contains the harmful chemicals. This product is available for public purchase and was even used by the state of Ohio. In 2019 alone, the Ohio Department of Transportation used a million gallons of the product. Outcry and protests from the impacted communities and environmental groups lasted for years until the state of Ohio agreed to ban the use of the product on their roads.

How can you take action on this issue? Contact your Congressional representatives today to let them know you support the reintroduction of H.R.2133, the FRESHER Act of 2021. The proposed bill would give the EPA the power to control wastewater discharge from oil and gas operations – meaning fracking wastewater would have regulation at the federal level.

Learn about more toxics