Silica Silica sand is the main ‘proppant’ used to fracture rocks underground and keep those cracks open. This ‘frac sand’ if not properly controlled can cause lung cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases in exposed workers. The US has the same occupational exposure limit for silica as the UK.
It is a level a study by the US government’s safety research agency NIOSH(11) found could be exceeded by a factor of 10 in fracking operations, prompting an official Hazard Alert.(12) Face masks did not reduce exposures below the limit, NIOSH found.
An ongoing attempt by the workplace safety regular, OSHA, to halve this permissible limit for crystalline silica exposure has been opposed by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the rest of the fracking industry. OSHA calculated that additional protections – including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers – would be required for 88 per cent of fracking workers in order to comply with a tighter standard. API has refused to release the findings of its own evaluation of silica exposures.
Even at the current exposure standard – the UK and the US have the same occupational exposure limit for silica, at least for now – exposure can cause potentially fatal cancers and lung and kidney diseases, and may lead to arthritis and other chronic health problems. In general, the more you are exposed, the greater the risk.
Volatile hydrocarbons In May 2014, NIOSH(13) reported that workers were facing hazardous levels of volatile hydrocarbons from used fracking fluids. It said since 2010 there have been at least four deaths linked to acute chemical exposures during flowback operations, the transferring, storing and measuring of fluids that return to the surface after fracking. The research body said as a consequence it had launched an investigation.
These volatile chemicals can affect the eyes, lungs and nervous system and at high levels also may lead to an abnormal heartbeat, NIOSH said.
Hormone disrupters A report presented to the Endocrine Society conference in June 2014 warned that the hormone disrupting properties of many fracking chemicals was worse than initially thought. “Among the chemicals that the fracking industry has reported using most often, all 24 that we have tested block activity of one or more important hormone receptors,” said co-author Christopher Kassotis of the University of Missouri.
“The high levels of hormone disruption by endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that we measured, have been associated with many poor health and safety outcomes, such as infertility, cancer and birth defects.”(14)
Other exposures An estimated 600 chemicals are used in fracking operations. Oil giant Halliburton lists 27 chemicals plus water used in a “typical European frac formulation”. These include chemicals more traditionally seen in pesticides, stain removers, degreasers, paint thinners, inks and disinfectants. Exposures at fracking sites can include heavy metals, benzene and other carcinogens and nerve poisons. The use of heavy equipment and haulage vehicles can also create a risk from diesel exhaust fumes, a cause of lung diseases and associated with lung, bladder and other cancers.
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