Federal health officials warn about the health effects of airborne silica dust at fracking drilling sites

by Heygood Orr and Pearson

Fracking workers who are exposed to airborne silica sand may be at risk of developing silicosis or other respiratory diseases, according to warnings from federal safety officials. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have also warned that residents who live near fracking sites may also be at risk of serious illnesses from breathing silica dust from these drilling sites.

Hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—is an oil and natural gas drilling technique in which large amounts of water, silica sand, and chemicals known as fracking fluids are pumped beneath the earth at a fossil fuel drilling site. This mixture causes cracks to form in the rock beneath the well. The cracks are filled and held open by the sand, allowing oil or natural gas to flow to the surface.

According to a 2012 study published by OSHA and NIOSH, the transfer of silica sand between machines that are used in the fracking process can cause large volumes of silica sand to become airborne. Workers who inhale this dust may develop silicosis, a respiratory disease that causing scarring to lung tissue because of the presence of silica in the lungs. According to OSHA and NIOSH, fracking workers sometimes develop silicosis within just a few years of being exposed to airborne silica, but it can take decades for silicosis to develop.

Workers who are exposed to silica at fracking sites and residents who live nearby these drilling wells may also be at risk of developing other respiratory diseases from exposure to silica sand, including lung cancer, tuberculosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Individuals who have developed silicosis or other diseases linked to silica exposure may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the drilling companies that operated the fracking site that caused the exposure to occur. OSHA and NIOSH have warned that many drilling companies that operate fracking sites do not provide their workers with adequate safety equipment to protect them from the high volume of silica dust generated there, placing them at an increased risk of respiratory illnesses.