Most Gas-well Chemicals Have Health Impacts

Scientist’s Work Exposed Fracking’s Toxic Stew

In 2007, the renowned scientist Theo Colborn appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to testify about the public health dangers of hydraulic fracturing. Colborn, the founder of the nonprofit The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) in Colorado, did decades of research on the harmful effects that industrial and fossil fuel chemicals have on endocrine health. She was a tireless advocate for stronger government regulation of such chemicals. The following is an excerpt of her 2007 Congressional testimony. Dr. Colborn died in 2014.

The late Dr. Theo ColbornI had no intention of getting involved with natural gas development when I set up my nonprofit until someone handed me the formula for the fracturing fluid to be used in 17 proposed gas wells on the Grand Mesa National Forest, which my family and I consider our back yard. After looking at the possible health effects of just one of the chemicals the company planned to use, I decided to submit a letter to the regional U.S. Forest Service and BLM Director who were issuing the drilling permits. In the letter I described the structure and physical characteristics of the chemical 2-butoxy ethanol (2-BE), as well as a long list of bizarre health effects that were possible at relatively low levels of exposure. 2-BE is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and evaporates at room temperature. If this chemical were to surface as a gas or get into a drinking water supply, it could cause health problems in domestic and wild animals and humans that could baffle veterinarians or physicians.

Two years later, a woman from Silt, Garfield County, Colorado, called to tell me that she had developed a very rare adrenal tumor and had to have the tumor and her adrenal gland removed. One of the effects of 2-BE was adrenal tumors. She told me that she lived within 900 feet of a busy gas well pad where fracking took place frequently. During one fracking episode her domestic water well erupted. She also began describing the health problems of others who lived near her. This prompted me to begin to find out more about how natural gas is produced. When I found out that each fracturing incident, commonly called fracking, uses approximately 1 million gallons of fluid and that each well can be fracked 10 times or more, I became very interested.

Soon TEDX became a clearinghouse for information about the products that were being used in natural gas operations. In order to organize the data we set up computer spreadsheets. We also searched the peer-reviewed literature and government and industry documents for the health effects of the chemicals on our list and added the information to the spreadsheets. We have over 1,700 citations to back up the Colorado data.

It is impossible to provide quantitative information about what is being used at any stage of developing natural gas because much of this information is proprietary. For example, in what quantities and mixtures are the products being used? How much water or other fluids are used to attain the million gallons needed to fracture a well? TEDX believes that every citizen has a right to know what is being introduced into our pristine and very fragile, arid ecosystems where every drop of potable water is precious. Nonetheless, we are certain of one thing, even at extremely low levels one would not want to drink the majority of the chemicals on the list.

The last time TEDX updated the Colorado spreadsheet, there were 171 products and 245 chemicals on the list. Ninety-two percent of the products had health effects. The other 8 percent are products for which there is no information because they are either proprietary or no health studies could be found. Most of the products had multiple health effects with some having as many as 14 effects.

As the list of the products grew, a consistent pattern of health effects kept emerging. Taking into consideration that air and water were the most likely pathways of exposures, we broke out the chemicals into two groups: volatile chemicals and water-soluble ones. We also realize now that air is the most immediate pathway. From 68 to 86 percent of the volatile chemicals cause mild to severe irritation of the skin, eye, sinuses, nose, throat, lungs and the stomach, and cause effects on the brain and nervous system ranging from headaches, blackouts, memory loss, confusion, fatigue or exhaustion, and permanent neuropathies.

Many of these chemicals are called sensitizers; they can lead to the development of allergic reactions. Thirty-five to 55 percent of the chemicals cause disorders that develop slowly such as cardiovascular, kidney, immune system changes, and reproductive organ damage and are toxic to wildlife.

Medical practitioners have no way to link health effects such as these with an environmental contaminant. 

We also found that the muds used in drilling are not as safe as industry claims. Using data from a drilling operation where there had been a blowout, the pattern of the possible health effects of the chemicals used in that operation matched the general health pattern of our overall analyses.

It is not general knowledge that when methane surfaces it brings along with it some very toxic gases that are being vented by the tons every year from each operational unit. These include benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, often referred to as BETX. These VOCs (volatile organic compounds) plus the VOCs in the products being used and the vast amounts of fugitive methane (which is a VOC and powerful greenhouse gas) plus the NOx (nitrogen oxide) produced from diesel- and gas-burning stationary and mobile equipment to produce and pump the gas are contributing to a growing increase in ozone in the west that heretofore has been ignored. And it is not general knowledge that when methane surfaces, it is wet, and this water, called condensate water, is often put into an evaporation pit on the well pad, or stored in condensate tanks and later picked up by “water trucks” and moved to large, receiving, open evaporation facilities. It takes fleets of water trucks to handle the volume of water surfacing.

Last year, it was estimated that 5,500 condensate tanks across western Colorado released over 100 tons of VOCs each, including BTEX. This gas field activity will be a continuing source of NOx and VOCs for the life of each well, which can be as long as 20 years. We had been unable to find any information on the chemical content of waste pits until we were sent results of a chemical analysis of the residues from six waste pits in New Mexico. The 51 chemicals that were detected in those pits produced a health pattern even more toxic than anything we found in the past.

Most important is that 43 of the 51 chemicals detected in the pits were not on our list of chemicals being used during natural gas operations. And 13 of the chemicals were at concentrations above state and federal safety levels. We found out later that except for those eight chemicals, their study design did not include testing for the chemicals on our list of what is used during production and delivery. We also discovered that 84 percent of the chemicals detected in the pits are on the CERCLA superfund list.

A finding such as this raises a number of questions that only adequately designed testing requirements and protocols can address — and points out the need for full disclosure. Data such as this also suggests that eventually, as each pit and well pad is closed down, it has the potential to become a new superfund site.


Photo credit: Telluride Mountain film

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