Colorado Fracking Study Shows Toxic Chemicals Up to 2,000 Feet Away From Drilling Sites

Data from a Colorado study finds that people living near oil and gas fracking sites may have heightened risk of nose bleeds, dizziness, headaches and other short-term health effects, according to The Denver Post.

Right now, state regulators have set a 500-foot minimum setback distance for residences. Evidence from the study finds that residents living between 500-2,000 feet of fracking sites are exposed to benzene and other chemicals.

Chemicals, like benzene, toluene and ethyltoluenes were found at up to 10 times the recommended levels at a distance of 500 feet from fracking operations. Those levels were still unsafe at distances of 2,000 feet from some oil and gas fracking facilities.

Fracking, the common name for hydraulic fracking, is a method of unconventional natural gas development, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIH). Sand, water and chemicals are forced into wells drilled horizontally into shale. When the shale cracks, natural gas or oil is released.

It is possible for the chemicals used during the fracking process to enter and contaminate drinking water sources. This water pollution can also occur during if flowback, the release of water used during fracking exiting the well, is not properly contained.

Combustion, such as the burnoff of excess natural gas, can pollute the air. Diesel fumes from transport trucks and airborne sand particles can also negatively affect the air quality in fracking areas.

While the number of studies concerning the health effects of fracking is limited, the NIH says there are three clear dangers from the process, mostly involving workers at well sites.

fracking, methane, natural gas, climate change
Fracking, which employs rigs like this one, extracts natural gas or oil from shale formations deep within the earth. Getty

The sand used in fracking can enter the respiratory system and causes diseases of the lungs. Accidental chemical spills can endanger the health of site workers. High levels of hydrocarbons can be emitted during flowback operations, allowing workers to be exposed to those toxins.

Some chemicals used in the fracking process are trade secrets. A report from the Partnership for Policy Integrity says drilling companies used a law that allows the identity of some fracking chemicals to remain undisclosed.

Those secret chemicals were injected into over 1,400 wells in Ohio. Studies indicate that the unknown chemicals could negatively impact human health, with effects like skin irritation, neurotoxicity and developmental toxicity.

"Secret exposure to chemicals that our own EPA reports as a potential hazard to human health is unconscionable," said Alan Lockwood, MD, of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). "Healthcare professionals can't possibly treat patients properly, make protective public health plans and decisions, and protect first responders without knowing what chemicals are in the environment."

According to a report by the PSR, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, making it a key component in global warming. Methane leakage from production sites, gas transport systems and storage facilities contribute to the problem, although an actual percentage of the leakage has yet to be quantified.

Natural gas output extracted by fracking is expected to double in the near future, according to The Guardian. Production of ethane, a combustible gas that can cause asphyxiation, is expected to increase by over 20 times by the year 2025.