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Fracking's Other Danger: Radiation

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker breaks apart a brick of solid material left over from treating frack water. The solid material, which may contain radioactive elements, gets disposed of in landfills.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced plans to study radioactivity associated with oil and gas drilling. The DEP says preliminary results from landfills have indicated radiation releases, but at levels too low to threaten public health. The issue has come up over the past several years in obscure studies that avoided headlines. But the jury’s still out on the dangers of shale related radiation exposures.
In the fall of 2011, the USGS released a report on radium in Marcellus Shale flowback fluid. The report didn’t address public health issues directly, but concluded that the levels of radiation in Marcellus produced water is far higher than the resulting flowback water in other formations. Concentrations of saline in water buried deep within the Appalachian Basin is unusually high, which is associated with increased levels of radium.
It’s not easy to get data on the content of production water. For its study, the USGS had to rely on tediously scanned data from the DEP, a 1999 report from the New York State Department of Environment and Conservation, as well as limited industry cooperation. Presumably, the DEP researchers will have better access to good data. But the USGS report does raise some important questions.
People are unlikely to drink such salty water. But animals are attracted to salt, and fracking waste water spills or leaks could be consumed by livestock. The problem with radium is it can accumulate in the soil where crops are grown, and where animals graze. From there, it could be passed on to people. Radium at some level, is present in almost all rocks, soil and water. The question is how much would be harmful to public health, and how much is released by the drilling process. The Environmental Protection Agency says the body will eliminate the bulk of radium that is ingested, but long-term exposure can be harmful.

“Inhaled or ingested radium increases the risk of developing such diseases as lymphoma, bone cancer, and diseases that affect the formation of blood, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. These effects usually take years to develop. External exposure to radium’s gamma radiation increases the risk of cancer to varying degrees in all tissues and organs.”

Radium is a known carcinogen. According to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, exposure can result in “increased incidence of bone, liver, and breast cancer.” More harmful, however, is radon, a decay product of radium. Radon exposure can cause lung cancer, and often seeps into households from underground formations.
A report issued by Marvin Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, sounded an alarm that Marcellus Shale gas contains high levels of radon, which could create health impacts for the end users cooking with it, or heating their homes.

“We calculate the number of excess lung cancer deaths for New York State. Our results: the potential number of fatal lung cancer deaths due to radon in natural gas from the Marcellus shale range from 1,182 to 30,448.”

But Resnikoff’s report is controversial, and was rebutted by another scientist Lynn Anspaugh, who prepared comments for a pipeline company seeking a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to transport Marcellus Shale gas.

“Natural gas samples have now been collected by an independent environmental engineering company and analyzed by at an independent commercial laboratory by a certified health physicist and specialist in radon measurements….The sample analyses clearly show that the radon levels in the natural gas are low and will cause no significant health risk. Further, the sample results directly and factually contradict Resnikoff’s speculative claims.”

Either way, Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic region, says the issue deserves greater study.
“These are fair questions for the scientists to ask and address,” says Stewart. “Proponents (of gas drilling) make the case that there’s no problem. And the opponents (of gas drilling) say ‘oh there’s radon in the shale.’ But radon is everywhere. The question is how much, what are the exposures, and what are the risks.”
Stewart points out that despite some scientists warning of the dangers of bedrock radon seeping into houses for decades, the impacts were not clearly known and reported until the mid-1980’s. DEP’s radiation study is expected to be completed in 2014.

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