How many people must die to get the American public up in arms about something that poses a threat to public welfare? Where does government draw the line and take action to protect its citizens? We were angered by the 11 deaths that resulted from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, but most of the outrage seemed focused on the oil spill. The tragedy of the 29 men killed at the Upper Big Branch mine had a more human focus when government took action. Why then does government appear to be doing so little about another tragedy that has already destroyed the lives of uncounted hundreds of people, and threatens thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands?
Quite aside from the fact that natural gas is not the "clean" source of energy it is claimed to be—and may in fact be dirtier than coal—fracking adds an additional environmental threat that goes virtually without mention. Shale formations are loaded with radioactive isotopes, not the least of which is radium, and the radon gas produced can, like that of the Marcellus Shale region, have concentrations at the wellhead of between 36.9 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) to 2576 pCi/L.
While there is significant reportage of the presence of radon gas, one other potential problem exists that has thus far been overlooked. Among the many other chemicals injected and earthen particulate dredged up by the back-flow from fracking wells, radium itself is flushed from the wells and piped to evaporation ponds where it dissolves in the water to form radium hydroxide.
Before going into the problem posed by radium peroxide, it may serve to review the findings of the available literature. First, let's give a thumbs up to Rachel Moran for her reportage in timesonline.com, "Fracking taps a mile-deep danger," and her many other reports in timesonline.com and Shale Reporter for what they reveal about the dangers and government inaction on the matter*:
And recent studies are showing elevated levels of radium in fracking wastewater, such as a report co-authored by U.S. Geological Survey research geologist, Mark Engle, who found that millions of barrels of wastewater from unconventional (fracked) wells in Pennsylvania and vertical wells in New York were 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] limit for industrial discharges to water.
When Rachel reported that radium "can stay radioactive for anywhere from 1,600 to 3,200 years," she must however have misunderstood what half-life means. A given quantity of radium will decrease in radiation emitted by one-half in 1,600 years as it decays into radon gas, led and other isotopes, to one-quarter in 3,200 years and so forth. By the standard she reports, the radium will therefore have reduced in lethality after 3,200 years only to a level of 75 times that allowed by the NRC for industrial discharges to water. It will still be emitting lethal radiation for millennia.
Now, to make sure everyone who reads this can understand the issue and put it into perspective, let's consider what a picoCurie is, and what science has to say about it. A picoCurie is a measure of radioactivity equal to the emissions from one trillionth of one gram of radium. While the Environmental Protection Agency deems levels of four picoCuries exposure to radon gas acceptable, not all scientists agree.
Radon is virtually ubiquitous in that it is found in soil everywhere, and seeps into homes and other structures where it can become concentrated. At its average concentration inside the home, just under 2 pCi, radon gas is still the second greatest cause of lung cancer in the United States, accounting for an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 deaths each year. Albeit reported on, this fact was not placed in context when a report by Marvin Resnikoff, Radioactive Waste Management Associates, "Radon in Natural Gas from Marcellus Shale," estimated that the radon in gas extracted from Marcellus shale would add 1,182 to 30,448 deaths to the 11.9 million people affected in the New York City metro area alone!
Let's repeat that to make sure there is no misunderstanding. The radon gas in Marcellus shale would add 1,182 to 30,448 deaths in New York City alone to the 15,000 to 22,000 already attributable to naturally occurring radon! This does not even take into consideration the additional millions of people in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, New Jersey and Delaware who would be affected! The danger from radon gas exposure is however a matter of long-term exposure over decades.
Albeit he did not directly attribute the symptoms reported in Gasland to radiation, Josh Fox' landmark documentary on fracking, we see the same symptoms suffered by material handlers who came in direct contact with the waste water discharge reported by Rachel Moran in her articles. Additionally Fox reported on cattle kills in proximity of the fracking wells. What they reported are the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning that could result from exposure to intense levels of radiation.
Despite the expansive character of the fracking fields and introduction of radon to the atmosphere through venting the condensate tanks and flares at the wellhead—some of which can be seen from space—it seems unlikely that the level of radiation that could cause these effects could be associated with radon released into the atmosphere at the well sites.
While we know from Moran's report that the material handlers came in close contact with the waste water from the backflow in fracking wells, the lack of definitive reports allows us only to speculate on the cause of radiation poisoning we saw in Gasland. As reported by Moran and shown in the footage courtesy of Fox, the water is often just allowed to evaporate—but with a little help.
The problem and potential hazard in allowing water in containment pools to evaporate is in how they accelerate the process, and the fact that radium is water soluble. The water is sprayed into the air where it not only evaporates, but releases dissolved particulate radium peroxide to be carried downwind from the site. Though investigations into the level of radiation in fracking waste water are in the process, there is no indication of plans to measure airborne particulate resulting from the method used to accelerate evaporation.
While the wells in West Texas and North Dakota's Bakken shale formation may pose little threat, insofar as they are in relatively low population density areas, the same cannot be said of New York and Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region, or Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. In the example of Texas, both San Antonio and Austin are located directly downwind of the fracking sites, and the prevailing southwesterly wind blows at an average 10 mph 300+ days a year. The wind there carries the visible ozone that shrouds San Antonio into the Hill Country nearly as far away as San Angelo, a distance of 200 miles.
Fracking is essentially creating a whole new generation of downwinders. The wind will carry a mix of radon gas and particulate radium peroxide to the air breathed by millions, and to the streams, stock tanks and reservoirs. What you do not breathe will settle to the ground, be washed into the underground water tables by rain, or be ingested by foraging wildlife and livestock. Those in closest proximity to the source will develop the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning, but the health effects of exposure far downwind from the source will begin to become apparent only in time as the cumulative effect of aspirating, drinking and eating the radon gas and radium tainted food have their effect.
Your greatest consolation will be that someone made a fortune killing you and your children. If that does not warm your heart, it should make your blood boil.
Update: The potential problem addressed herein is the fact that the waste water is first held in open "ponds" to allow some of it to evaporate, because the cost of disposal is related to the volume of the waste water that needs to be disposed. To speed up evaporation, many well operators jet the water into the air (pictured above in the upper right frame)—where particulate radium peroxide released by evaporation or suspended in small enough particles of water can be carried by the wind.
If you have spent any time on or in close proximity to water while the wind is blowing, you may have noticed an occasional spray picked up by the wind as well.
Now, remember this is not saying that grains of radium are being carried by the wind. This is about molecular radium particulate that is dissolved in the water. As an atomized droplet of water becomes airborne, it continues to evaporate. As it does so, it is carried further and further from the source, and frees up the particulate radon peroxide to be carried for yet more miles—perhaps even hundreds of miles.
The most contaminated areas will be those in close proximity to the source, where heavier water particles containing the radium peroxide dropped to the soil. When the article was first written, the research did not turn up anything about testing the soil for radium, and a more comprehensive article about the proposed testing turned up yesterday that indicates it will be part of the study the EPA is expected to release in 2014.
Now, if you believe radon gas to be a problem, you have to understand that any particulate radium you inhale will be far worse. Consider this snippet from Wikipedia:
Radium is highly radioactive and its decay product, radon gas, is also radioactive. Since radium is chemically similar to calcium, it has the potential to cause great harm by replacing calcium in bones. Exposure to radium can cause cancer and other disorders, because radium and its decay product radon emit alpha particles upon their decay, which kill and mutate cells. At the time of the Manhattan Project in 1944, the "tolerance dose" for workers was set at 0.1 microgram of ingested radium.
How far do you think one ten millionth of a gram of radium can be carried by the wind?
For more background, see the following reports by Rachel Moran:
Fracking wastewater can be highly radioactive
DEP backtracks on radiation issue
So who is in charge, anyway?