• Linda Ritzer

Study Finds Higher Radiation Levels Downwind of Fracked Wells

Elevated levels of radioactive particles were found in areas downwind of unconventional gas well fracking sites, a recent study determined.


A team of Harvard researchers conducted the study “Unconventional oil and gas development and ambient particle radioactivity,” which was published this month in the journal Nature Communications. It analyzed readings from 157 Environmental Protection Agency radiation monitoring sites around the U.S. between the years 2001 and 2017.


The study determined that there is a statistically significant increase in particle radioactivity (PR) in the air in areas within 20 kilometers of a cluster of 100 wells. The radioactivity is likely from naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), uranium and radon, in the shale formation that is unearthed during the hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling processes.

“Likely mechanisms include the fugitive release of natural gas, which contains a higher-than-background level of radon at the wellheads, compressor stations, pipelines and other associated facilities, the management, storage, discharge and disposal of flow-back and produced water which is rich in NORMs, the accidental spill of beneficial use of produced water in nearby communities, the handling, transport, management, and disposal of radioactive drill cuttings,” the study states.


While the levels found were below public health limits, the researchers said that their results “suggest that an increase in particulate radioactivity due to the extensive UOGC may cause adverse health outcomes in nearby communities by elevating PR level.”


The study also states “short-term exposure to PR has been associated with adverse health outcomes, including a decrease in lung function, an increase in blood pressure and increased levels in biomarkers of inflammation.”


The researchers noted that further studies, especially those based on PR measurements close to OGGD activities, are needed to validate the exposure pathway.


While the study did not find a statistically significant association between gas development and radioactivity in the Marcellus and Utica region, which includes Pennsylvania, the authors said that was likely due to a lack of monitors near gas well sites. However, they estimated the influence that an additional 100 wells would have, and determined that it would be approximately seven times the estimated effects of other regions studied.


The Pennsylvania Department of Health has undertaken two studies to look at the possible health effects of fracking, including one examining whether a number of Ewing sarcoma and other childhood cancer cases reported in Southwestern Pennsylvania could be linked to the process. The state Department of Environmental Protection conducted a study in 2015 that determined there is little potential for harm to workers or the public from radiation exposure due to oil and gas development. However, the report also outlined recommendations for further study. DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the department is reviewing the Harvard study.


A state grand jury report released this summer was critical of both departments for failing to protect residents from health and environmental effects of fracking. The Harvard study will add to the body of knowledge on the issue of airborne radioactive particles and hopefully encourage further study.

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