Silica dust poses newly revealed health risks from fracking

I am very pleased to present this blog from NRDC's James Meinert,  'guest blogging' from the exciting meeting he attended this week...

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science recently convened a roundtable on Fracking and Health Impact Assessments, bringing together officials from federal and state agencies, universities, and industry. This roundtable hoped to reorient the discussion on fracking from: does the data show pollution, to what is happening in our communities?

Many important topics were covered, but the most startling presentation of the roundtable was delivered by Eric Esswein, a Senior Industrial Hygienist for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Mr. Esswein presented the occupational health risks he found at 11 fracking operations in 5 states (CO, ND, PA, TX, AR). The presentation was straightforward and frank. Fracking uses up to 4 million pounds of silica sand per well to prop open all the newly created fractures in the formation. The NIOSH recommended health limit is that no worker should breathe in more than 500 micrograms of that silica per day; or else risk silicosis, an irreversible disease with a well-know, well-documented path to lung cancer. When Mr. Esswein placed monitors on 116 frack site workers to measure their breathing zone exposure, 79% of samples had more silica dust than recommended, 31% were 10x higher than recommended, and the highest sample was 137x higher than the NIOSH recommended limit. This is unacceptable. This is a known risk with known methods of prevention. The good news is, Esswein said, workers were wearing appropriate face respirators. But even these respirators only protect up to 10x the recommended limit. As we viewed slide after slide of workers in plumes of dust, it was painful to know that even behind those respirators, nearly a third of these workers were breathing silica dust above the NIOSH recommended limit.

To a room of health professionals, these statistics were shocking. A full day later, during panels on other topics, people were still weaving into their remarks that they wouldn’t want a loved one standing in those clouds of silica dust. In the Q&A following the final session, panelist Dr. Chris Portier, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), went out of his way to thank Mr. Esswein for bringing this silica issue to his attention, remarking “I hadn't thought about looking at silica, and your presentation makes it clear to me that accidents with trucks that carry silica are a major concern here, as are covering those trucks effectively to keep the dust from coming out into the environment." From the audience, Dr. Eula Bingham, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor from the Carter Administration, rose to comment and evoked the Gauley Bridge incident when hundreds of workers died within a few months following silica exposure: “I saw a picture from NIOSH that made me think of the Gauley Bridge and the tragedy that happened in our country when we were fiddling around with silica.” On stage sitting next to Dr. Portier was the current Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Dr. David Michaels, who echoed the pervasive concern that health professionals were only now entering the policy discussion.

We are over five years into the massive shale gas development boom and the top public health officials in the country are still newly learning of astounding risks to human health. Following Mr. Esswein’s presentation, the questions rained in: how far is the drift from these plumes? What are the remobilization rates? Could pregnant women or children be exposed? (In Colorado wells can be as close as 150 ft to homes; see NRDC President Frances Beinecke’s recent blog.) The answer to all of these questions: we haven’t looked at that piece yet. NIOSH is an occupational health research agency, everyone in the room knew-- NIOSH money isn’t for monitoring children past the fence line. But the shock of a room full of health professionals is a definitive illustration of how community health is falling through the gaps in our fractured regulatory coverage of oil and gas extraction. Over the two days of presentations, it became clear that many people are looking at their small part of the puzzle, but without the full picture, the baby is already out with the bathwater.

For many people, finding pollution and protecting communities are one in the same task. But we find ourselves in a public policy stalemate because the oil and gas industry has tried to convince communities that there is a trade-off between protecting communities and jobs, and pollution is only a problem when too many lives are cut short. So we’ve spent years taking a water sample here, an air sample there, looking for pollution that would require a closer look at the big picture. But pollution regulations covering oil and gas extraction are a patchwork, and there are exemptions and conditions that keep oversight off whole sections of the industry, (see Miriam Rotkin-Ellman’s account of how this patchwork is still being regenerated in the new NESHAP air rule). As this roundtable demonstrated, the evidence of pollution can also be seen in the health of our communities. Tools like the Health Impact Assessment can shine a powerful light into the black hole of conclusive human health research that has surrounded natural gas pollution. 

The path to lung cancers from silica dust is one of the oldest occupational health diseases on the books, and in this case completely preventable- one of the sites NIOSH sampled was using non-silica proppant, meaning a silica exposure of zero (although the non-silica proppant can come with other risks, such as radioactivity). In the current system, no one is on the hook for seeing the entire health impact of this process. The White House recently established a new interagency working group to try and look at the bigger picture, but for the past 5 years, and for how many years more, no one has known the full weight fracking is placing on the American environment and Americans health.   

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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