Energy. Environment. Economy.

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.


  • Paul Roden

    Contained in the natural gas is radioactive radon. It is when you breathe it in, when the radon decays, the “radon daughters” (elements from the radioactive decay, that are “bone seekers”. They are absorbed by the bone and teeth. They emit low level radiation that causes cancers and genetic mutations.
    We also have NORM, Normally Occuring Radioactive Material, which wouldn’t be a problem if it was left in the shale and never brought to the surface in a mad quest for 100 years of climate destroying natural gas and a toxic resovoir of dealth for generations to come. Fracking waste water can never be filitered or distilled to extract the chemicals from the waste water. The is permanently destroyed for the mad persuit of profits for few and the environment be damned, profits come first.

    • Rick Peterson

      You use terms in your post trying to give the impression that you have
      vast knowledge and radioactive materials and the effects of radiation. Let’s evaluate your statements. First, you state that “radon daughters” is the term for the “bone seekers” found in radon that causes cancer and three legged babies. Daughter products are by-products of radioactive material created during decay. They are not necessarily “bone seekers” or even dangerous. Bad news for you – radon is already in many, if not most, homes in America. Next you discuss NORM, which acually stands for naturally occurring radioactive material, not normally occurring radioactive material. This material is generally considered harmless and is unlikely to create a “toxic reservoir of death”. The most laughable claim is that fracking waste water can never be filtered or treated and that it is permanently destroyed. Bunk! Water is quite amazing – no matter what you do to it it can be restored to perfect purity. No material on Earth can permanently destroy water. Water from reactors can be “filtered” to a point where it is safe to drink utilizing a fairly simple resin bead and carbon system. I will not ask you any questions on the sciences because you obviously don’t have knowledge in that area but I will ask you this – since climate destroying, toxic waste creating natural gas is primarilly used to heat homes and create electricity, what would you replace it with? Should we burn wood? No that destroys the forest and releases carbon. How about solar panels? No, won’t work in the winter and we don’t have enough open land for all the panels that would be required. how about nuclear power? Yes, but we have to worry about all the tree huggers filing lawsuits. Burn more oil? No. you will complain even more about that. I guess we can just knit a heavy sweater and tough out the winter – in the dark and hope we survive. Do me a favor and quit pretending you know what you are talking about. This isn’t all about profits – survival is part of the equation as well.

      • Paul Roden

        So Mr. Rick Peterson are you a radiation expert or are you a shill for the gas industry? Just because radon is in so many homes doesn’t make it right or safe. Why have more radiation added to your home and business when it is not necessary. The process you mention, resin filters, where does the resin come from? Most likely oil, which we are running out of. Another pro-fracker said that activated charcoal filters could remove the VOC’s(Volatile Organic Compounds) like benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene (BTEX) Benzene causes cancer. Some of the other chemicals are endocrine disruptors. Do you want that in your drinking water? . Most drillers and most water treatment plants don’t use activated charcoal or resin bead filters. Why? because they cost money. The drillers are not treating their waste water very much. Do you want to pay higher water bills for this treatment or higher taxes to clean up and monitor the mess after the drillers leave? The drillers are exempt from the Clear Water, Clear Air Safe Drinking Water, and Super Fund Acts by the “Halliburton Loophole” If these chemicals are so safe, what are they trying to hide? Our PA DEP and the Dept of Environmental Quality have to channel all complaints and reports through the Governors Office, because economic development is more important than the environment. The drillers gave Governor Corbett over $1.4 Million dollars for his election. And finally we don’t need this gas for our energy needs. Please read the work of Dr.’s MarK Jacobson and Mark Dilluchi, at Stanford University and the University of California at Davis. The drafted a plan which is summarized in their Nov. 2009 Scientific American Article and in their March 2011 articles in Energy Policy. We can power the world with renewable energy by 2030 without fossil fuel or nuclear power with existing technology, if we possess the political will. Germany has adopted a similar plan. Already 40% of their energy comes from renewable sources. Their goal is 80% of their energy will come from renewable sources and shutting down all of their nuclear power plants by 2022. I was in Germany last summer. Their economy is booming and the amount of energy they consume is declining. The Germans are not “starving and freezing in the dark.” The German Parliament Building, which I toured last year, is totally powered by a combination of active and passive solar, wind, photovoltaic and biomass powered diesel electric generation fueled with canola oil. In contrast, the US Congress Building in Washington, DC is powered and heated by coal. How is it the German Chancellor and all of the political parties in Germany stood up to the fossil, nuclear and centralized electric power companies and created their renewable energy plan and our government can not? Fracking is just like nuclear power. They are both too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs.

      • Guy

        Drink Fuk u shima reactor water, you paid shill.

  • Rasputin

    Gee, not too one sided. Trying again to terrify people. Ever check the radiation from your granite countertops, those levels far exceed the levels from shale drill cuttings. Pennsylvania is doing the prodent study. They have looked in the past and found no threatening levels, but are doing another exhaustive study to be sure. That’s how it should be done, not scare tactics as the proir commentator does.

    • Paul Roden

      Rasputen This is not to terrify the people, but to educate them about the facts because our government and the mainstream news media are not protecting or informing the public about the truth about fracking. They say we need to use this hydrofracking to extract the gas as a “bridge fuel” “or a “transition fuel”. They have also brainwashed the public to think that extracting this gas will lead to our “energy independence”. If that is true, why does the gas industry want to build more pipelines and convert or build 19 ocean ports to export this gas overseas? Wouldn’t that drive up the price of this vital natural resource of our energy independence and further slow down the transition to renewable energy? Back in the 50′s and 60′s the electric companies came into our schools and sold us a bill of goods on nuclear power. They told us “It would be too cheap to meter.” We all know now that that is a lie. Neither nuclear wastes nor fracking wastes, water or NORM from drill cuttings have a safe disposal place. We don’t know how much that will cost. Injecting it deep underground causes earthquakes. You have to keep this waste out of the biosphere, whether it is water, filters, cuttings tailing or the wastes from the nuclear fuel cycle. I don’t think you are going to have billions of gallons of water and other solid waste from renewable energy that can contaminate in the Marcellus Shall Region of the Delaware Water Shed of 15 million people. Fracking, like nuclear power are both too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs. Please read the work of Jacobson and Delucchi in the Nov 2009 issue of Scientific American or their two excellent articles in the March 2011 issue of Energy Policy. What we are lacking is the political will to have renewable energy in this country, not the technology, engineering, science, raw materials, manufacturing capability or capital. The energy companies don’t want this because it cuts into their profits. How did Germany escape this?

  • Ken S.

    Radon is found in concentrations high enough to be dangerous to human health (>4 pCi/L) in relatively few well-populated areas. // // Anything <=4 pCi/L is not anything to worry about. I sit on the Marcellus Shale, and the normative range for my house is from 11 pCi/L to 24 pCi/L. My brother has a very rare form of lung cancer; and never smoked (anything) nor did he grow up in a home containing second-hand smoke. Thank God he is in remission.

    Be that all as it may, I have seen the initial estimate of 100 years of natural gas left dropped to 20 years in just 1 year, now that it is being used for so many more things. So: In 20 years (if that) — what then?

    In this era where Money is the new God and the prevailing creed is greed, I hear so much about how "unfair" it would be to leave this or that debt for "our children and grandchildren." Nice little bit of misdirection there. The Right uses misdirection virtually all the time., They'll say, "the revolution will start on the Left" when it already has started on the Right, with secession talk and "armed insurrection" threats. A "Patriot" now is anyone who hates our President and wants to overthrow him. "Religious freedom" means having a morality police force. We also equate "freedom" with "guns", and in doing so trounce our unalienable rights (the ones from God), not to mention put man-made rights (2nd Amendment) above human rights.

    Unfair to our "children and grandchildren"? What's unfair is to leave them a land reeking with air-pollution,where they must eat uninspected food and contaminated water; a country with no constraints to drilling and moving toxic materials around,where they will cause earthquakes,and they will spill, further injuring the health of future generations. Or worst of all: leaving our children and grandchildren an ugly, pock-marked barren moonscape, where government and justice count for naught except for that which resides in each man's holster, and where there are no more polar bears or deer, or arctic regions; where the Atlantic rises high enough to push the Chesapeake Bay high enough to push the upper branches of the Susquehanna to flood states they have never before reached.

    The answer is to find new alternative fuel sources, and maybe cut down on what we think we need to consume. And stop worrying about money, and start worrying about what will really matter in the future to your "children and grandchildren."

    I'm no scientist either, Mr. Peterson, but I don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.

    A nice future for our "children and grandchildren"? Or leave them "Hell on Earth"? It's our decision to make — now.


  • chris

    you are complete, fucking morons.

  • chris

    the fracking=radioactive power and I am a sad environmentalist douchebag

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