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How Fracking May Cause Cancer

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used for unconventional gas production. Unconventional sources of natural gas can be tapped only using a technique like fracking to force it out of the ground. Currently, fracking is used to extract gas from shale, coalbed methane, and gas from tight sands in many states in the U.S. These include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Michigan, Virginia, and several others.

Fracking is a relatively new industry so the full extent of the harm it may cause to workers and people who live near wells remains to be seen. However, studies of wells and areas around them are already proving that this process can cause serious harm, including contaminating air and water with substances that can cause cancer and exposure to silica that can cause silicosis in fracking workers.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a technique used to extract natural gas or oil from rocks deep below the surface of the earth. There are certain areas of rock that contain high amounts of gas or oil, but which don’t flow very well because of the rock structure, or the oil or gas is spread out in the rock rather than concentrated in one spot. Fracking opens pathways in the rock for greater flow so these natural resources can be extracted and collected.

Fracking begins with the drilling of a well hundreds to thousands of feet down into the earth. From there the well may then extend horizontally for thousands of more feet depending on where the oil or gas is. The next step is to pump highly-pressurized fluids into the wells to force fractures in the rocks. Sand, pellets, or other small particles are used to hold up these new fractures. The fluid in the wells then flow back to the surface.

This flow back may include the chemicals used for fracturing, water, minerals, and other natural substances found in the rock formation. The returned fluid is often stored and then treated or disposed of, or it may be injected back into the ground.

Health Concerns of Fracking

While fracking allows for greater access to natural resources, there are serious health concerns. Chemicals that are pumped into the ground include those that are very harmful to human health, such as hydrochloric acid, methanol, ammonium persulfate, and ethylene glycol. Some of the chemicals used, like polyacrylamide, are known human carcinogens and may cause cancer. Furthermore, the fluid that flows back from the wells contains harmful substances from the deep layers of rock: radon, benzene, and methylene chloride.

During the fracking process some of the harmful chemicals are released into the air where they can cause harm to workers and anyone living near the well. One study of fracking wells found that there were 61 different chemicals from a well in the air within a mile of the site. Other studies have found that levels of radon have increased in homes near fracking wells. Radon causes lung cancer.

Another health concern is that these chemicals can and do get into drinking water. In many areas, ground water is a drinking water source and the blasting of fluids into the fracking wells can cause the water to be contaminated. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has denied that there has been widespread water contamination, it has cited numerous specific examples in which drinking wells contained chemicals from fracking.

Silica Exposure and Silicosis

One particular hazard of fracking that is well documented is exposure of workers to silica. Silica is a natural mineral that is abundant in the earth. Drilling churns up dust that often contains silica particles. When inhaled these particles can cause respiratory damage and even a condition called silicosis. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that fracking workers are often exposed to harmful amounts of silica dust.

Overexposure to silica can cause silicosis, a condition that occurs when lung tissue is irritated by silica particles and gets inflamed. This then leads to scarring that makes it more difficult to breathe. The severity of symptoms and how quickly they appear depends on the level of exposure and the period of time of exposure. Most people with silicosis develop mild symptoms that may not even be noticed for decades after damage and scarring have already occurred.

Silicosis symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, phlegm production, wheezing, and a crackling sound in the lungs. A large amount of silica exposure at once may trigger acute silicosis, which causes sharp chest pains and difficulty breathing. More often, the disease progresses slowly with symptoms worsening over time. There is no cure for silicosis, and it simply has to be managed as a chronic condition.

Exposure to silica occurs in a way similar to asbestos exposure. Small particles of silica dust, like small fibers of asbestos dust, enter the air and can be inhaled or ingested by anyone in the area. Once inhaled, both of these substances are capable of sticking in the tissue in the chest cavity, causing damage that may lead to cancer in the case of mesothelioma and asbestos, or scarring in the case of silicosis and silica.

Silica and Asbestos Exposures Cause Similar Symptoms

Silicosis is very similar to another illness caused by exposure to asbestos, another natural mineral that can cause a lot of harm. Asbestos inhalation can cause a type of lung scarring called asbestosis. The two conditions have nearly identical symptoms, which can cause problems with diagnosis. Both conditions are difficult to diagnose and may require several imaging tests. A chest X-ray, CT scan, and even the use of an endoscope to look at the inside of the lungs can be used to try to diagnose silicosis or asbestosis. Getting an accurate diagnosis for either condition, and as early as possible, is crucial for the best treatment outcomes.

Fracking and Cancer Risks

Because fracking causes residents and workers to be exposed to harmful chemicals, there is a definite possibility that more people will develop cancer in the areas around fracking wells. Right now it is too soon to confirm this, as most cancers take many years to develop and be diagnosed. There are known carcinogens that have been found in the air and in the water around fracking wells, so the risk is very real.

Residents and workers may be at risk for any type of cancer. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, and the increased presence in homes near fracking sites means lung cancer rates may increase in the future. Drilling into the ground releases all kinds of natural substances that have the potential to cause harm, including those that are carcinogenic.

The Potential for Asbestos Exposure

So far there is no evidence that fracking wells are causing asbestos exposure in workers or nearby residents. But, asbestos is a natural mineral that is found throughout the world. It may not be as abundant as silica, but even a small amount of asbestos can cause serious harm. If a fracking site contains just traces of asbestos, for instance, fibers of the mineral could get into the air and water and put people at risk for mesothelioma or asbestosis.

Fracking is not going to end any time soon, but residents near these wells and the workers stationed there have a right to clean air and water. They will likely continue to suffer from the consequences of being contaminated with silica, chemicals, natural minerals, and radon, and even asbestos in some cases. The damage will be seen over the next several decades as people get sick from this contamination.

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