Overview: Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking” is raising health concerns over high levels of silica dust, which can pose health hazards when inhaled. If breathed in, silica sand can caused serious, even deadly disease such as lung cancer. Fracking is already a hotly debated issue in the United States amidst reports that the process may also lead to contaminated drinking water and other issues, but concerns over silica poisoning are relatively new, giving support to fracking opponents who feel that the dangers associated with fracking are too often overlooked by companies.
- There are concerns over the risks of silica sand, which is used to prop open fractures during fracking
- Silica dust can cause serious respiratory issues and lung cancer
- One study analyzing 11 fracking sites found that nearly 80 percent of air samples had higher levels of silica dust than recommended; 31 percent had 10 times more than recommended
High Levels of Silica Dust
Fracking obtains natural gas by channeling large volumes of water, chemicals and silica sand into rock formations. The sand props open the fractures created in the rock to help release the natural gas. The process has already become controversial due to the slew of chemicals found in fracking wastewater, but the scientific community is only recently beginning to focus on the dangers of silica dust as well. One study, which was presented by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) senior industrial hygienist Eric Esswein, evaluated silica exposures among 116 workers and 11 fracking sites and found that 79 percent of air samples had higher levels of silica than recommended. Furthermore, in 31 percent of samples silica levels were 10 times higher than recommended. The highest reading was 137 times the recommended level.
Silica dust is a known health hazard when inhaled. Exposure to silica sand can lead to serious respiratory problems including silicosis and lung cancer. Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Huffington Post “At frack sites, silica gets into the air and you get these huge plumes of dust that can be breathed in by workers and anybody nearby, downwind,” Rotkin-Ellman added that “It doesn’t take much silica to cause a health problem.” In June, NIOSH and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a new warning on fracking silica with recommendations including the watering down of fracking dust. Esswein pointed out that the effects of silica dust may take years or even decades to develop. While some of the workers studied wore respirators, they only protect up to 10 times the recommended limit.