In the past decade, fossil fuel giants were granted permission to use substances that can potentially degrade into PFAS — toxic compounds known as “forever chemicals” — for fracking at oil and gas drilling sites across the US, according to internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The internal documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Their full report, released July 12, can be found here.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they are known to accumulate in the human body and do not break down in the environment. They have also been linked to a host of adverse health impacts, including low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and hormone disruption.
Despite being aware of their risks, the Obama-era EPA approved three substances that can degrade into PFAS for use in hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” for oil and gas at 1,200 wells in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming between 2012 and 2020.
The report even contends that the approval of these nasty chemicals was not fully disclosed to the public, but EPA were well aware of their potential risks. In one of the records, EPA regulators wrote: “EPA has concerns that these degradation products will persist in the environment, could bioaccumulate or biomagnify, and could be toxic (PBT) to people, wild mammals, and birds based on data on analog chemicals, including PFOA and [REDACTED].”
“The evidence that people could be unknowingly exposed to these extremely toxic chemicals through oil and gas operations is disturbing,” Dusty Horwitt, researcher and attorney who is currently consulting with PSR, said in a statement. “Considering the terrible history of pollution associated with PFAS, EPA and state governments need to move quickly to ensure that the public knows where these chemicals have been used and is protected from their impacts.”
Fracking is an oil and gas extraction technique developed in the late 1940s to gain access to fossil energy deposits previously inaccessible to drilling operations by blasting through rock with millions of gallons of water and other human-made chemicals. Not only does this process release significant amounts of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, it also runs the risk of contamination of groundwater and bringing toxic chemicals to the surface. On top of this, fracking has been found to generate an increase in the level of radioactive elements in the air nearby.
It’s no secret that fracking is terrible for the environment, but adding potential PFAS into the mix makes things even worse. PFAS were widely used for decades in a variety of household items, from non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpeting to fire-fighting foam. Their use in oil and gas operations, however, has not been previously publicized until now.
“It’s very disturbing to see the extent to which critical information about these chemicals is shielded from public view,” added Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s Environment & Health Program Director. “The lack of transparency about fracking chemicals puts human health at risk."
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