Higher Airborne Radioactivity Detected Near Fracking Sites In The US

Three hydro-fracking derricks sitting on a plain. Jens Lambert/Shutterstock.com

A new report has revealed that in the continental United States, fracking generates an increase in the level of radioactive elements in the air nearby. In particular, the levels for those who lived downwind from fracking sites were significantly higher than normal radiation background levels.

Unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), also known as fracking, has expanded rapidly in the US in the last few years. Though this technique has been associated with negative environmental impacts, the impact of radioactivity in airborne particles has not been fully explored.

According to the study published in Nature Communications, for sites that had 100 wells within 20 kilometers (12 miles) upwind, the increase in beta radiation was about 7 percent over the normal levels. But certain sites had over 500 wells, so those communities experienced levels 40 percent higher than regular background levels. 

“The increases are not extremely dangerous, but could raise certain health risks to people living nearby,” lead author Petros Koutrakis from Harvard University told Reuters.

In particular, the negative health outcomes associated with an increase in the radioactivity of ambient particles are a decrease in lung function, higher blood pressure, and increased levels in the biomarkers of inflammation, potentially linked to cardiovascular diseases.  

The research was conducted using 157 federal radiation stations from the Cold War period. The team monitored radiation levels between 2001 and 2017 and compared the data with the records of both position and production levels of 152,900 fracking wells.

Fracking extracts shale gas and crude oil by pressuring water and breaking rocks where these fossil fuels are trapped. But it's not just these fuels that fracking liberates. Toxic metals and radioactive materials are also contained in rocks. The fracking process can free them, allowing them to enter the air and local water systems.

It is unclear if the source of the radiation in this study comes directly from the drilling process or from wastewater stored at the location of the wells. The team hopes that understanding the source will allow it to be controlled.

This is just one of the several health risks associated with fracking. Major reviews on the subject have long concluded that this technique to extract fossil fuels is a public health risk.

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