Fracking Sand may Pose Health Hazards

December 28, 2012 - The rapid expansion of natural-gas production has saved Americans billions of dollars in energy costs, but it’s also raised health concerns that include possible contamination of drinking water with toxic metals to large amounts of diesel exhaust pumped into the air. Now there’s growing concern about the plumes of silica sand that drift from a natural gas fracking site.

The process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires blasting large amounts of water, chemicals and silica sand into bedrock. Up to 4 million pounds of the sand is used per well to prop open the newly created fractures in the rock and to release natural gas.

Exposure to dust-containing silica sand is raising environmental and health concerns, and residents in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the prime crystalline silica is unearthed, are speaking out about it. Silica sand is a long-known cause of diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer.

Eric Esswein, senior industrial hygienist with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, monitored the exposure of 116 workers at 11 fracking sites and found that 79 percent of air samples had more silica dust than recommended and 31 percent had at least 10 times more than recommended. The highest reading came in with 137 times the U.S. recommended limit of silica. Respirators only protect up to 10 times the recommended limit of silica. 

Prompted by the new findings, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with the NIOSH, released a joint hazard alert on fracking silica in June.

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