Yet another health worry from fracking: Radon


It seemed like we’d run out of new environmental and public health problems caused by the fracking boom. Since folks started paying attention to the surge in unconventional gas drilling across the United States, we’ve seen neighbors lighting their tap water on fire with a match, tainted well water, leaks and spills into once-pristine streams, foul-smelling air pollution, increasing emissions of methane (a critical greenhouse gas), dumping of radioactive wastewater at sewage treatment plants, the hijacking of billions of gallons of water in regions parched by drought, and mounting evidence that the injection of the tainted wastewater back into the ground is causing earthquakes. And that list comes off the top of my head; I’m sure I’ve left out a half-dozen other major concerns.

But given the shoot-first, ask-questions-later nature of the fracking boom, scientific researchers continue to uncover new health hazards, nearly a decade into this American energy gold rush. One previously unexplored risk had been radon, already a major environmental concern in parts of the United States, especially the Northeast. This tasteless, colorless radioactive gas can seep from the soil into homes, elevating the risk of lung cancer for residents now breathing radioactive dust. As fracking pulls up gas from deep underground in areas such as Pennsylvania, which already has a high rate of radon contamination, it’s not at all surprising that researchers would discover a link:

A new study published Thursday reported a disturbing correlation between unusually high levels of radon gas in mostly residences and an oil and gas production technique known as fracking that has become the industry standard over the past decade.

Writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, researchers analyzed levels of radon — a colorless, odorless gas that is radioactive and has been linked to lung cancer — in 860,000 buildings from 1989 to 2013. They found that those in the same areas of the state as the fracking operations generally showed higher readings of radon. About 42 percent of the readings were higher than what is considered safe by federal standards. Moreover, the researchers discovered that radon levels spiked overall in 2004, at about the same time fracking activity began to pick up.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves drilling 6,500 to 10,000 feet below the surface, and scientists theorize that radon trapped in rocks there is releasedinto the atmosphere.

“By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface,” one of the authors, Joan A. Casey from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warned.

This is a most alarming study, raising the specter of a significant spike in lung cancer and related diseases in the fracking zones of this country. It validates the recent decision by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prevent fracking in his state — which was already prone to radon pollution — for the foreseeable future. And it places pressure on other states. In Pennsylvania, where the research occurred, a new Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has promised tougher regulations and new taxes on the natural gas industry. But he’s also committed to sustaining high levels of fracking — so that he can use that fracking tax money to fund education. This study should be a giant yellow caution flag. The new evidence shows that fracking may be unsafe at any price.

Read more about the links between fracking and radon pollution from the Washington Post:

You can read more about my call for strict limits on fracking and ending our addiction to fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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