Study raises concerns about chemical contamination of groundwater caused by fracking

by Heygood Orr and Pearson

A new study conducted by researchers at Duke University has raised concerns about groundwater contamination and a risk for explosions created by chemicals at oil and natural gas wells that drill using hydraulic fracturing. The study found that water samples taken within a kilometer of hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—sites contained elevated levels of methane, ethane, and propane, raising concerns about the adverse health effects from contaminated groundwater and a potential risk of explosions caused by these volatile chemicals.

Fracking is a drilling technique that uses large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals. After an oil or natural gas well is drilled, this mixture is pumped into the well, causing fractures to form in rock that contains fossil fuel deposits. The sand holds these fractures open, allowing the oil or gas to flow to the surface.

According to the study, groundwater levels of methane were six times higher than normal in samples taken from within a mile of a fracking site. Ethane levels were 23 times the normal level within the same radius. Researchers also found traces of propane near homes that were within a kilometer of a drilling site.

Although fracking has allowed the US to tap previously inaccessible reserves of oil and natural gas, the technique has raised widespread concerns about the health effects it may pose for workers and nearby residents. In addition to concerns about groundwater contamination caused by fracking, federal officials have raised an alarm about the risk of silicosis or other respiratory disease that could be caused by exposure to the airborne silica sand created during the drilling process.

According the NIOSH and OSHA, two leading federal workplace safety groups, many workers are not provided with adequate safety equipment by drilling companies, putting their health in extreme danger from the silica dust to which they are exposed. Although most individuals who develop silicosis only develop symptoms of the disease after many years, some fracking workers have been diagnosed with the disease just five years after being exposed to the silica sand at fracking sites.