Rolling Stone recently published an article exploring an ongoing secret of the oil-and-gas industry — and everyone who values his or her health needs to hear about it — regardless of political loyalties.
It turns out that wastewater produced by gas and oil wells — and trucked across U.S. neighborhoods in a disturbingly haphazard way — is filled with toxic compounds linked to cancer and more.
You may wonder — how can laws allow this? The truth is many elected officials are actually fighting for looser restrictions on toxic waste and applauding the “regulatory relief” that allows for our current (and dire) situation. Why? Well, money, of course.
Plenty of officials are turning their heads and pretending there’s no problem with the gas-and-oil industry and fracking for natural gas. In fact, pipelines, compressor stations, power plants and shipping terminals are being developed across the U.S. at a shocking pace — at a major cost to American citizens. Much of this gas is headed to the coast for export, while others will be used to create more single-use plastic pollution.
Major Findings Everyone Needs to Know About
Within the oil-and-gas industry, there’s a major problem that few are talking about — brine. What’s brine? It’s a salty substance that surges out of U.S. gas-and-oil wells. But get this, nearly one trillion gallons of this waste product is produced every year. According to Rolling Stone author Justin Nobel, “that’s enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day.”
The major issue with brine — it needs to go somewhere. After it’s collected in tanks, trucks pick it up and haul it away to treatment plants or injection wells; some is dumped right back onto American lands.
But that’s not the worst of it. Rolling Stone uncovered that this gas-and-oil waste is not only toxic, it’s radioactive. And we’re not just talking trace amounts here. “The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers,” Noble wrote. When oil and gas is extracted, this radioactivity is pulled up to the surface and carried in the brine.
We’ve known that small amounts of radiation are emitted from many common natural substances and many gas-and-oil industry representatives brush off concerns about the radioactivity of brine. But this Rolling Stone piece highlights the findings of a brine hauler who secretly stashed samples in his backyard shed after learning radioactivity levels were far higher than he was lead to believe.
When the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University tested the samples, the results were shocking. In a nut shell, the brine consisted of extremely high radium levels — well above the restrictions set in place for hazardous-waste sites.
In terms of radium levels (which are measured in picocuries per liter), here’s a simple breakdown:
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 pCi/L
- Samples collected by the brine hauler measured 3,500 to 8,500 pCi/L
- Brine examined from sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York averaged around 9,300 pCi/L
- The highest recorded sample level was 28,500
We know that radium poses insidious health effects on the human body. It’s known as a “bone seeker” and is linked to devastating impacts on the skeletal system (including certain bone-related cancers). It’s also linked to birth defects, respiratory ailments and heart problems.
Think this only affects gas-and-oil industry workers? That may have been true in the “old days,” when waste wells were far removed from population centers, but with fracking, that’s no longer the case. Here’s what’s happening today…
- Regulations allow fracking wells closer to people’s homes.
- As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new wells in the United States.
- There are currently about 1 million active oil and gas waste wells, across 33 states, with the biggest growth occurring in the most radioactive area, the Marcellus shale areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.
- Legislators designed specific exemptions to allow the fracking industry to exist in our communities.
In addition to the radioactive waste being produced by the oil and gas industry, there are also pipes, pumps and filters in industry plants that are coated with radioactivity.
Insane Ways Industry Deals with Oil & Gas Wastewater
For starters, radioactive gas and oil wastes are stored and dumped across America, posing major health risks to industry employees, but drinking water sources, the land we use to grow food and the public. The is an entire waste stream most of the public knows little (or nothing) about, which involves toxic wastes being:
- Transported along U.S. highways, usually is unmarked trucks
- Handled by under-protected, ill-informed workers
- Leaked into waterways and wastewater treatment plants that can’t properly filter out contaminants
- Dumped in regional landfills
- Stored in dumps that aren’t equipped to contain the contaminants
- Spread on local roads as an de-icing agent
- Used to suppress dust on dirt roads, even in populated areas and close to farmlands
- Used in commercial products, like at-home de-icing agents
There are even reports of brine haulers being directed to dump the waste into abandoned mine shafts and a storm drain that empties into a community creek.
A study conducted by researchers at Duke found high levels of radium in river and stream sediment at levels 650 times those found upstream from industrial waste treatment plants.
Despite plenty of lawsuits, samples and anecdotal reports on the significant dangers of radiation-laced brine, state legislators from Ohio and Pennsylvania have pushed bills that actually protect the practice of brine-spreading. Legislation in Pennsylvania is also attempting to restrict the Department of Environmental Protections’s ability to test products containing brine.
And when state officials are pressed about the dangers of gas-and-oil industry waste, the most common reply is that they are “in accordance with federal and state air-quality statuses.” Well, that’s not too hard to do, considering there are no regulatory standards for brine.
Health Effects of the Oil & Gas Industry
Sadly, there hasn’t been enough research or testing on the health impacts of gas-and-oil brine exposure, or even exposure to pipes laced with toxic radiation. And, of course, the industry tends to dismiss the link between waste exposure and medical conditions.
A review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health evaluated 20 studies involving health outcomes in populations living near oil and natural gas operations in the United States.
Of the epidemiological studies included in the systematic review, the following health issues or symptoms were reported by people living in areas close to oil and natural gas wells:
- Early infant mortality
- Preterm birth and high-risk pregnancy
- Low birth weight
- Stress and fatigue
- Muscle and joint pain
- Urinary bladder cancer
- Central nervous system tumors
- Cardiology and neurology hospitalizations
- Congenital heart defects
- Neural tube defects
- Childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS)
- Chronic pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Asthma and upper/lower respiratory infections
- Throat, nasal and eye irritations/burning
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Sleep disturbances
We can’t make a clear link to these health conditions and toxins produced by wells, and further research is needed. (Remember, it took decades to definitely prove smoking causes lung cancer.) However, based on data, recent legal cases and the studies that do currently exist, we do know that there’s a strong link between the oil and gas industry and the following health threats…
Radium, the radiation found in brine, emits what’re called alpha particles, which, when ingested or inhaled, can quickly mutate body cells. Scientists believe that each exposure to radium, especially at levels found in brine, increases a person’s risk of cancer.
A 2017 analysis conducted by Yale Public Health measured the impact of water contaminants and air pollutants related to oil and gas development. Researchers found 55 known, probable or possible human carcinogens. Twenty of these compounds are believed to increase the risk of leukemia/lymphoma.
The Wall Street Journal also recently reported on a string of rare sarcoma cancer cases around Washington County, Pennsylvania. Four counties in southwest Pennsylvania saw a roughly 40 percent increase in Ewing’s sarcoma cases in the last 10 years compared to 10 years prior. Of these recent cases, six cases of this rare cancer cropped up in a single school district. Another 10 children in nearby school district also developed other forms of cancer.
If you look at a map of active fracking wells in Pennsylvania, the connection seems obvious. Since 2003, corporations fracked more than 1,800 wells in Washington County alone.
2. Respiratory Conditions
The radium found in brine attaches to dust and is easily inhaled. And when an industry worker dealing with radioactive brine gets radium on his clothes and goes home to his family, they, too, are exposed to dangerous levels.
A 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine also found a link between asthma symptoms and unconventional natural gas development (fracking). In Pennsylvania, where corporations drilled more than 6,000 wells between 2005 and 2012, reserachers found a statistically associated increased odds of mild, moderate and severe asthma exacerbations.
And a 2017 study published in Preventive Medicine Reports demonstrates an association between a range of health problems and unconventional natural gas development. Of the 135 health assessments conducted between February 2012 and October 2015, adults who lived within 1 kilometer of a well reported symptoms including throat irritation, cough, shortness of breath, sinus problems and wheezing. Other symptoms reported include headaches, stress or anxiety, sleep disruption, nausea and fatigue.
3. Skin Issues
A 2015 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives assessed the relationship between household proximity to natural gas wells and reported health symptoms. Researchers found that dermal symptoms were among the most common issuess and occurred most frequently among people living less than one kilometer from a well.
A 2019 article published in Environmental Health News suggests that fracking is linked to increased hospitalizations for skin issues, including everything from acne and eczema, to ulcers, rashes and diaper rash.
4. Burning Eyes, Nose and Mouth
One of the most common complaints among brine haulers and people living close to gas and oil wells is a burning sensation in their eyes, nose and throat. Nose bleeds are also commonly reported, according to a survey taken by residents of Washington County in Pennsylvania; so is loss of smell.
What You Can Do
When it comes to the regulation of radioactivity in oil and gas waste, there doesn’t appear to be one federal agency that’s in charge of setting clear standards and assuring compliance. The Environmental Protection Agency itself admitted to this.
And it’s also true that gas and oil brine isn’t even required to be handled as a hazardous waste. Apparently, this was an economic decision dating back to 1988. Labeling billions of barrels of waste as hazardous would have cause a severe economic impact to the industry, despite the concerning levels of lead, arsenic and other toxins. Today, instead, we’re dealing with the economic impacts of polluted air, water, diseases and likely early death.
Because brine isn’t considered hazardous, storage in our communities is allowed. The Department of Transportation has no jurisdiction over how it travels along community roads, passing schools, homes and waterways.
To address this major, life-threatening issue involving the gas-and-oil industry, there needs to be policy changes. The industry tends to put blame on the consumers, denies the health risks associated with their wells and praises loose regulations that lend to their profits. The high costs, in essence, are externalized to taxpayers. In addition to that, the U.S. government subsidizes fossil fuels at the rate of about $20 a year, with 80 percent going to natural gas and oil subsidies. Globally, when factors like healthcare costs and the full impact of pollution remediation related to fossil fuels are factored in, the number is a whopping $5.2 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund.
We need policy changes that will include:
- Strict standards to ensure the safety of oil and gas industry workers and their families
- Regulations protecting waterways from waste contamination
- Regulations on waste driving routes so that they aren’t in more populated areas, by schools or close to waterways
- Banning brine-spreading (when brine is spread on rural roads for de-icing and reducing dust), which is currently legal in 13 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan
In the end, we have to figure out if we can actually perform fracking safely. And until we know the answer to that, public health experts say we should pause new development.
We all need to hold policymakers and the oil and gas industry accountable, making sure they have to follow the same rules as other industries. An organization called Open Secrets reported that the gas and oil industry paid out $28+ millions dollars to political candidates — $23 million to Republicans and almost $5 million was to Democrats.
One bill that deals with making the industry more accountable is called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, or H.R. 763. This bill proposes a carbon fee and dividend that would make oil and gas companies pay for the true cost of their products. The idea is to encourage market-driven innovation for clean energy technology, and to discourage harmful pollution that negatively impacts our health and environment.
The pushback on this bill is that there will be an added cost that will likely be passed down to consumers. But, in return, citizens would receive monthly dividend checks that is anticipated to more than handle the increased costs for middle- and lower-income households. The money isn’t kept by the government, but rather given back to households to use as they see fit.
If you’d like to estimate your monthly financial impact under this bill, use this personal carbon dividend calculator.
True Cost of Oil & Gas Extraction
According to research published by the American Public Health Association, approximately 17.6 million people in the U.S. live within one mile of an active oil and/or gas well. Data suggests that for these people, there’s a higher risk of health problems, which will likely increase their healthcare costs. And the true cost of oil and gas extraction doesn’t stop there. Here’s a breakdown of just some of the financial impacts:
- Healthcare costs: In a 2008 report, public health costs of just one gas drilling region of Arkansas topped $10 million. With about a million gas and oil wells in America, you can only imagine the rise in healthcare costs going forward.
- Drinking water cleanup: When groundwater is contaminated with toxins due to oil and gas extraction, it isn’t cheap to clean that up. Reports show that water clean up in small areas affected by fracking costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more.
- Environmental impact: American forests and rural areas are being cleared for fracking, causing an increase in pollution, expansive nutrient-generated “dead zones” due to this pollution and a decrease in animal populations. Gas and oil industry wastes are also poured on roads, seeping into farmland and impacting American crops. How much will it cost to clear this pollution? Environment America suggests it would take $1.5 to $4 million dollars per year for every well.
- Use of water: An estimated single well requires 2 to 8 million gallons of water. To get this water, tanker trucks take about 200 to 300 trips to the well bringing water, and 400 to 600 trips away from the well with water waste.
- Infrastructure damage: This truck-heavy industry impacts roadways and quality of life for residents. Environmental America reports that truck traffic needed just for water delivery to one fracking well causes the same amount of local road damage as nearly 3.5 million car trips. Multiply that by the number of wells in America (about a million), and again for the waste haulers.
Although natural gas is touted for its reduced production of carbon dioxide, compared to coal, Americans are paying the true cost of natural gas with their health, contaminated water, contaminated drops and infrastructure damage. And when the entire lifecycle of natural gas is considered, some researchers find it’s actually more polluting than coal. Can an American healthcare system already strained afford this?
Final Thoughts on Fracking Radiation & Conventional Oil & Gas Health Risks
- A 2020 Rolling Stone bombshell report uncovered a massive radioactive waste health threat exposing millions of Americas to cancer-causing contamination.
- This waste, called brine, contains radium — an extremely dangerous radiation that affects the skeletal, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. People living in closer (or semi-close) contact with brine report short-term symptoms like burning eyes, throat irritation, rashes, migraines, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, sleep disturbances, nose bleeds and respiratory conditions.
- It turns out that waste from gas and oil wells isn’t categorized as hazardous, so it’s commonly put into unmarked trucks, driven through populated areas and disposed of — being put back into soil or water. It’s even used on rural roads, where it seeps into waterways. In other areas, it winds up in landfills unequipped to handle high levels of radiation.
- Many members of government and the gas and oil industry do not have your back on this. Policy changes are necessary to protect the lives of Americans (and the environment) exposed to these toxins. Consider examining politician’s policy proposals on the natural gas industry. Support is gaining for H.R. 763, a market-based proposal that that would make industry pay for the true cost of extracting oil and gas. The collected money would be returned to U.S. households monthly and is expected to more than cover the increased costs for low- and middle-income households.