Add airborne radioactivity to the long list of hazards from oil and gas fracking sites, a team of Harvard University researchers advises, in a new study in the journal Nature Communications.
“Our results suggest that an increase in particle radioactivity due to the extensive [fracking development] may cause adverse health outcomes in nearby communities,” the study team concluded, after comparing air monitoring data with position and production data for 120,000 U.S. fracking wells.
The data, collected from 157 Cold War-era radiation monitoring stations between 2001 and 2017, showed that “the radioactivity rose by 40% compared with the background level in the most affected sites,” The Guardian reports. “The increase will be higher for people living closer than 20 kilometres to the fracking sites, which was the closest distance that could be assessed with the available data.”
One of the well-known features of fracking projects in the United States is that they’re frequently located near homes and schools—or within 25 metres of an elementary school playground, in one case in Colorado where the fossil running the drill rig is 95% owned by the Canada Pension Plan.
The new study found the highest increases in radioactivity from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields beneath Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, compared to regions of Texas and the Dakotas where the rock contains less naturally-occurring uranium, the paper adds.
“If you asked me to go and live downwind [of a fracking site], I would not go,” said study lead Petros Koutrakis, environmental scientist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “People should not go crazy, but I think it’s a significant risk that needs to be addressed.”
“Previous work has shown that chemicals released during fracking could pose a health risk to children, and the process has contaminated groundwater in some places,” The Guardian writes. But the new study took aim specifically at radiation. While the average increase in radioactivity with 100 wells upwind was 7%, some of the sites had nearly 600 wells nearby.
Overall, “the researchers found that fracking resulted in a far bigger increase in particle radioactivity than conventional oil and gas operations,” the news story adds. “This is because the initial source of the radioactivity is a uranium isotope in the rocks. Tapping a conventional oil and gas reservoir barely disturbs the rock. But in the shale formations targeted by frackers, the oil and gas is trapped within the rock, which is blasted apart with high-pressure water and releases the uranium.”
After it’s released, the uranium decays to radon gas, which then decays into ultra-fine particles of polonium and lead. “The polonium isotopes are the ones which are very toxic,” Koutrakis explained, adding that increases in radioactivity at the scale the study documented can be harmful to humans.
Marco Kaltofen of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, who wasn’t involved with the study, said fracking wastewater has also been found to have elevated levels of radioactivity.
“We shouldn’t ask how airborne radioactive risk from fracking compares to the waterborne risk,” he told The Guardian. “We should ask if it’s a good idea to add radioactive particulates to either air or water. This study suggests that the answer is no.”