Environmental and Health Effects of Fracking

What is Fracking?

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, is a well stimulation technique that involves injecting water at wellbores at a high pressure to fracture rocks so that petroleum, gas and other products may flow freely. Usually, according to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drilling is done up to a mile or two into the earth’s surface vertically or at an angle. There is then a horizontal drilling a mile or more to reach the shale rock.

Water mixed with sand, salts, detergents and other chemicals are pumped at a high pressure into the well. The pressure creates fissures held open by sand particles from which natural gas and oil escape. There has been concern with the fracking boom that has hit the globe recently and with good reason. As much as it gives the world a constant supply of fossil energy, it is harming the environment and the people.


Environmental Impacts of Fracking

Advocates of fracking argue that it’s actually a relatively safe way of extracting oil and natural gas. But research done by Cornell and Duke University, fracking is dangerous to the environment. Some of these numbers may seem small but when the impact over the years is estimated, the threat to the environment suddenly seems threatened.

  1. Water Pollution

According to climate central, fracking uses 9.6 million gallons of water on average per well. This is water that could be used on agriculture and for consumption. What is more, most of these wells are found in semi arid places that could use the water. What flows to the surface is called flow back and this water contains heavy metals, radioactive material, hydrocarbons and other toxins.

Because of the decay of uranium, the pumped slick water comes back to the surface with a very high amount of a radioactive gas called radon. Flow back water can be treated, says Marcia Bjornerud, a structural geologist from Lawrence University, but it is very expensive due to the amount of it pumped in and most water treatment plants in small towns cannot handle this. So instead, a great amount of this water is dumped in rivers which it contaminates.

Huge quantities of brine or slick water and chemicals are pumped into a well that is running about two miles into the earth. This can easily contaminate the underground water and pose a threat to the locals. The fracking industry on average adds 3500 wells each year which means more water used and more contamination of water systems.

  1. Air Pollution

Methane is one of the major gases released from fracking wells and it is twenty five percent more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of greenhouse effect. Methane impacts the environment by creating an ‘air blanket’ that traps heat within the earth’s atmosphere causing overheating at earth, a greater greenhouse effect. As a result, it leads to melting of ice releasing the trapped carbon dioxide and increasing the ocean water level which can in turn swallow up islands.

Over a wells lifetime, 3.6 to 7.9 percent of methane gas escapes through leaks and venting according to a study conducted by Robert W. Howarth of Cornell University. This sounds like a small amount but considering that 3500 wells are being dug each day, these are scary amounts of methane being released into the air. Carcinogens from flow water can evaporate into the atmosphere polluting the air. The equipment used in drilling, transportation and processing releases nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound which undergo chemical reaction in the presence of sunlight to form smog in other words, ground level ozone.

  1. Soil Pollution

A new study by researchers at Cornell University discovered that surge of flow water back to the earth’s surface causes loosening of colloids. Since colloids are electrically charged, they bind with chemicals and later with soil particles. Duke University researchers investigating the spillage in North Dakota, found high concentrations of Selenium, lead and ammonium is soils around drill sites long time after spillage happened.

Radium, a very radioactive element, was found to have attached to soil and is estimated to remain years after. The inorganic chemicals, salts from brine and bound metal do not biodegrade which means the effects do not wear off. Some of it may be consumed through plants if there are any consumable plants at the region, if any survive. Radioactive soil is actually wasteland since plants are poisoned and eventually die causing death and migration of animal life which is dependent on the plants, eventually contributing to the loss of biodiversity.

Health Effects of Fracking

Communities in areas around fracking sites have been found to be more susceptible to respiratory problems, organ damage, cancer and neurological problems because of the particles in the air from fracking and the chemicals used in fracking. Accidental spillages destroy farms and undermine agriculture. What is worse is that most fracking is in relatively dry areas and fracking is adding strain to already straining communities whether they realize it or not.

  1. Cancer

Carcinogenic compounds in the air, and exposure to radon both in the air and dissolved in waste water cause cancer. Some directly affect the DNA causing cells to divide faster than they are undergoing programmed cell death like many cell deaths do. Damage to the DNA makes the cell go to aptopsis but when the cell death strands are damaged, the cell then undergoes malignant uncontrolled cell division causing cancer.

Most of this is due to radioactive elements emitted by the fracking process. Some increase the cell metabolism causing faster division of the cell thereby resulting in tumors, some of which may be cancerous. The faster metabolism of cells is by chemicals ingested through drinking and eating plants that have absorbed these chemicals. When the radioactive water is ingested, it has a high likelihood to cause poisoning, organ damage, cancer and death.

  1. Respiratory Problems

Crystalline silica in sand which is used in hydraulic fracking causes silicosis which is actually incurable and poses a danger to the workers who inhale it. Silicosis is a lung disease that is characterized by shortness of breath with little effort, fatigue, chest pains, darkened to blue skin and heart disease. It increases risk of tuberculosis and respiratory problems as it attacks the lungs.

The more the duration of exposure to sand dust and the concentrations one is exposed to, the more acute it can be. Those living around the wells are susceptible to chronic silicosis if they are exposed to low amounts of sand dust over a long period of time. Particles contained in diesel combustion and dust causes a lot of respiratory problems and the likelihood of death in some cases.

  1. Foetal Defects

Birth defects are a serious worry for people exposed and living around fracking wells. Volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found around wells affect normal fetal development by impairing the formation of the heart and neurological system. Furthermore, exposure to radioactive compounds can damage or alter parts of the DNA in an unborn baby causing defects and in some cases mutations.

  1. Neurosystem Breakdown

People within miles proximity to fracking wells have been found to complain of headaches, seizures, dizziness and sometimes losing consciousness. These indicate an effect to the nervous system. The human sensory/nervous system can be highly sensitive even to low levels of benzene.

Multiple studies have found benzene levels to be higher than can be contained hence the nervous system affect. Benzene has also been found to cause damage to organs that form blood i.e. the blood marrow. When it affects the red bone marrow it causes diseases like anemia which with time can become serious. It also means fewer red blood cells are produced to transport oxygen leading to shortage of breath and fatigue with little effort.

  1. Damage of the Endocrine System

The human endocrine system is very sensitive to chemicals used in fracking and though most companies try to hide the chemicals used, so far research has discovered 632 of them. Imagine what long term effects these would have in a person’s health. A human and ecological risk management paper showed that seventy five percent of these chemicals can affect the skin and eyes, thirty seven percent causing organ damage of kidneys, liver and heart, and a frightening twenty five percent causing DNA alteration and damage to the major endocrine glands namely pancreas, pineal gland, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.

As much as the ‘fracking boom’ in the globe is creating an energy security, it solves one problem while creating more. In the end of the day the question is, is it worth it? It may create employment but it is causing a multitude of health problems to those it employs. It may be benefiting the local community economically but the people are affected. And not to add the small earthquakes caused by fracking that may become a problem in the future if it continues. And as much as it gives gas and fossil fuels in tones, it is destroying the environment both the components and its aesthetic value.

Image credit: pixabay


Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.