How Fracking May Cause Cancer
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a method used to collect natural gas deposits from shale rock. Unconventional sources of natural gas can only be tapped 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 places across the United States. States that commonly used fracking to extract deposits include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Michigan, and Virginia among others.
Since fracking is a relatively new technique, potential harm for workers and local residents is not fully understood. However, studies of wells and areas around them are already proving this process can cause serious harm. Fracking can potentially contaminate air and water with cancer causing substances. One of these cancer causing substances is silica that can cause silicosis in fracking workers.
What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Hydraulic fracturing is typically used to extract natural gas or oil from rocks deep below the earth’s surface. Certain areas of rock contain high amounts of gas or oil. However, these deposits don’t flow well due to rock structure. In other circumstances, the oil or gas is spread out in the rock rather than concentrated in one spot. Fracking opens pathways in the rock to increase the flow allowing these resources to be extracted and collected.
The fracking process begins with drilling hundreds to thousands of feet down into the earth. From there, the well may be extended horizontally for thousands more feet depending on the location of the oil or gas. Next, highly pressurized fluids are pumped into the well, forcing fractures in the rocks. Sand, pellets, or other small particles are used to support these new fractures. Then the fluid flows back to the surface. The returning fluid may include the chemicals used for fracturing, water, minerals, and other natural substances found in the rock formation. This fluid is often stored, treated, and disposed of. Often, it is injected back into the ground.
Health Concerns of Fracking
Though fracking allows for greater access to natural resources, there are serious health concerns. Chemicals pumped into the ground include some that are harmful to human health. These chemicals include hydrochloric acid, ammonium persulfate, methanol, and ethylene glycol. Some of these chemicals, like polyacrylamide, are known human carcinogens. Furthermore, the fluid that flows back from the wells often contains harmful substances from the deep layers of rock. Radon, methylene chloride, and benzene are among the substances that end up in this fluid.
During the fracking process, some harmful chemicals are released into the air where they can cause harm to workers and local residents. One study of fracking wells discovered 61 different chemicals in the air that originated from a well site one mile away. Other studies have found radon levels increased in homes near fracking wells. Radon causes lung cancer.
These chemicals can also get into area drinking water, posing another health concern. In many areas, ground water is a source for drinking water. Blasting fluid into fracking wells can contaminate that ground water. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denies widespread water contamination, it has cited specific examples of fracking chemicals in drinking wells.
Silica Exposure and Silicosis
One well-documented fracking hazard is silica exposure. Silica is an abundant natural mineral. Drilling churns up dust that often contains silica particles. These particles can cause respiratory damage when inhaled. A study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicated fracking workers are often exposed to harmful amounts of silica dust.
Overexposure to silica can also cause silicosis, a condition that occurs when lung tissue is irritated by silica particles and becomes inflamed. This causes scarring that makes breathing difficult. Severity of symptoms and how quickly they appear depends on the length and level of exposure. Most people with silicosis develop mild symptoms that may not be noticed for decades.
Silicosis symptoms include persistent cough, shortness of breath, excess phlegm, wheezing, and a crackling sound in the lungs. Concentrated exposure may trigger acute silicosis, which causes difficulty breathing and sharp chest pains. More often, the disease progresses slowly with symptoms worsening over time. There is no cure for silicosis; it must simply be managed as a chronic condition.
Exposure to silica occurs in a way is similar to asbestos exposure. Small particles of silica dust, like small fibers of asbestos dust, enter the air. Once these particles are airborne, they can be inhaled or ingested by anyone in the area. Once inhaled, both of these substances can lodge in the tissue in the chest cavity. This can cause damage over time, potentially leading 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 similar to another illness caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos inhalation can cause a type of lung scarring called asbestosis. Since the two conditions have nearly identical symptoms, there can be problems with diagnosis. Both conditions are difficult to diagnose and may require several imaging tests. A chest X-ray, CT scan, or an endoscope can be used to try to diagnose silicosis or asbestosis. Best treatment outcomes rely on receiving an accurate and early diagnosis for either condition.
Fracking and Cancer Risks
There is a possibility more people will develop cancer in the areas around fracking wells because fracking can lead to exposure to harmful chemicals. However, it is too early to confirm this, as most cancers take many years to develop. The risk is very real because known carcinogens have been found in the air and water around fracking wells.
Fracking workers and local residents may be at risk for any type of cancer. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and levels are increased in homes near fracking sites. Drilling releases all kinds of natural substances with the potential to cause harm, including those that are carcinogenic.
The Potential for Asbestos Exposure
There is currently no evidence that fracking causes asbestos exposure. However, asbestos is a natural mineral that is found throughout the world. Asbestos may not be as abundant as silica, but even small amounts can cause serious harm. If a fracking site contains traces of asbestos, fibers could get into the air and water, putting people at risk for mesothelioma or asbestosis.
The process of fracking isn’t going anywhere, and residents near these sites have a right to clean air and water. These people will continue to suffer the consequences of silica, chemicals, and radon contamination. There is also a possibility of asbestos in some cases. Only time will show how extensive the damage to human health fracking will cause.
Page Edited by Dave Foster
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