Dangerously high levels of known carcinogens around wells using the controversial technique of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, could pose serious health risks to nearby communities, according to a study published in Environmental Health.
"These aren't just anecdotal stories about how people are being affected by this industry," Ruth Breech, co-author of the report and program director at Global Community Monitoring (GCM), told Vice News. GCM trains people how to monitor environmental quality.
The study found that several chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde, and benzene, frequently exceeded federally recommended levels. In some cases, hydrogen sulfide samples were 90-66,000 times higher than recommended safety levels, while formaldehyde was 30-240 higher and benzene, an EPA classified carcinogen, 35-770,000 times higher.
Exposure to benzene increases the risk of leukemia, along with dangerous respiratory problems. Hydrogen sulfide can cause short and long term neurological, upper respiratory, and blood-related symptoms and formaldehyde is known to cause cancer.
Across the country people living adjacent to fracking sites have reported irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, dizziness, headaches, and fatigue. Environmental groups and some scientists have warned that long term exposure to fracking emissions could lead to increased rates of cancer.
The study investigated potential air contamination along what Breech calls the "life cycle" of oil and gas development. This includes testing at the oil or gas well pad, as well as along pipelines and at storage facilities. Sampling took place at 96 sites in Wyoming, Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
In addition to publishing results from the air monitoring, GCM coauthored a report that makes recommendations for how government agencies and companies can mitigate dangerous chemical emissions.
"There should be comprehensive air monitoring, increased enforcement by state regulators, and the community should have the right to know the composition of all chemicals being stored, emitted, and pumped," Breech told VICE News.
'With this industry, we have little to no information about what is actually happening.'
Fracking involves drilling horizontally as well as vertically into below ground rock formations and then pumping a mixture of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into the rock in order to release deposits of oil and natural gas.
But due to what has been dubbed the "Halliburton Loophole," fracking is exempt from most major US environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Former Vice-President and ex-Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney convened meetings with the oil and gas industry that led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which stripped federal agencies of their authority to regulate fracking.
"With this industry, we have little to no information about what is actually happening," Breech said, referring to potentially dangerous air and water pollution.
Industry groups reject the study, faulting the team's methodology.
"Anytime you're going to have a scientifically sound study, you need to have a scientifically sound methodology," Katie Brown at Energy In Depth told VICE News. Energy in Depth was founded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Brown points to possible contamination in the process of collecting air samples.
The study's authors brush off the charges noting that federal agencies and the industry itself uses many of the same data collecting tools. They also point out that the study underwent peer-review by qualified scientists.
"Instead of really looking at the issue, or being active about how to address some of the problems […] the oil and gas industry thinks they own science," Breech said. "I think what's alarming about this is that there is so little being done. We just don't know the long term health effects of being exposed to this level of chemical exposure is going to result in."
Follow Shelby Kinney-Lang on Twitter: @ShelbKL