by Seth Whitehead
Last week, Business Insider published an article, “10 scariest chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing,” which was full of misinformation from start to finish.
The article gets off to a rocky start by pointing to a new study that attempted to link trace concentrations of a chemical found in groundwater to shale development. The study was quickly exposed by EID for not actually finding what the headlines insinuated. The researchers found trace amounts of the chemical 2-BE in three wells. And while it is true that 2-BE can be found in fracking fluids, it can also be found in literally hundreds of household products, as the study’s authors even noted. It can also be found in the cement that was used to construct the replacement wells from which the researchers took their samples.
Notably, news broke this week that the authors of that study failed to disclose a significant conflict of interest.
Though wildly inaccurate, it is actually fitting that a study finding trace amounts of a chemical prompted the reposting of a list of “scary” chemicals that can literally be found in everyday household products, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Based on the 2011 U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee Hydraulic Fracturing Report, which analyzed the chemical disclosures of 14 leading fracking companies between 2005 and 2009, Business Insider points out that the chemicals on its list pose a myriad of health risks, ranging from eye irritation to cancer, and even death. But that simplistic view misses the point that it’s the level of concentration that determines whether a chemical is harmful or benign. Fracking fluid is typically 99.5 percent water and sand, while the remaining 0.5 percent is made up of additives. According to a recent EPA report of more than 38,000 disclosures to FracFocus, the maximum concentration of all additives was less than one percent and the median maximum fracking fluid concentration was 0.43 percent by mass.
According to Illinois based environmental engineer Gerald Quindry, there are four requirements for a chemical to be of concern due to toxicity, one being that the concentration has to be high enough to cause harm.
The final requirement? There has to be an exposure pathway to humans or environmental receptors, which may be even more relevant than concentration, considering that the public isn’t exposed to these chemicals, as they are contained within the wellbore. Not so scary now, is it?
Furthermore, two chemicals on Business Insiders’ list are used as surfactants in fracking fluid. Surfactants were recently found to be “no more toxic than common household substances” by a University of Colorado-Boulder report.
Michael Thurman, lead author of that paper and a co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, had this to say about the study’s findings:
“We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home.”
Another chemical on Business Insiders’ list has been phased out completely, while four others are not commonly used in fracking fluid.
Granted, some of the chemicals listed below sound scary. But a brief rundown of Business Insiders’ ‘scariest’ fracking chemicals shows that there’s really nothing frightening about the additives at all.
Used to protect against freezing and corrosion in the wellbore, methanol was used in 342 fracking fluid products submitted to the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee for their 2011 report, making it the most widely used “hazardous” chemical in the report. But it is essential to understand methanol is used in very small quantities in fracking fluid, oftentimes less than 0.001 percent of total volume, according to the Methanol Institute. A 2011 Methanol Institute white paper explored several hypothetical scenarios in which methanol used in fracking operations could potentially impact the environment. In every scenario examined, concentrations of methanol were orders of magnitude lower than methanol-based screening levels. Most telling was the outcome of a hypothetical scenario of potential release into drinking water:
“Even in this scenario, using the most conservative estimates, the report finds that the estimated methanol intake is still 40 times less than the daily dietary intake of methanol from common sources like fruit and juices.”
Like 2-BE, methanol is most often used as a surfactant, which, as stated earlier, have been found by a recent University of Colorado-Boulder study to be no more dangerous than common household substances.
Though it is a focus of many activists, fracking fluid is not a common source of BTEX compounds. According to FracFocus 3.0, miniscule amounts of BTEX compounds are found in just one percent of the more than 50,000 well sites whose chemical data are recorded. Trace amounts of benzene and the other BTEX compounds can also be found in just about every modern product imaginable.
The most common form of benzene exposure in the United States comes from mobile sources, such as cars and trucks.
The U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee Hydraulic Fracturing report found that BTEX compounds were found in just 60 of more than 2,500 products used by the 14 participating companies between 2005 and 2009. One of the primary sources of BTEX chemicals, kerosene — which the EPA classified as a diesel fuel in 2014 — is being phased out of use in fracking fluid, if it hasn’t already been phased out completely.
Speaking of diesel, it is also important to understand that this additive, as well as chemicals sometimes (mis)classified as diesel, were never commonly used in fracking fluids. Chemicals classified as diesel were components of just 51 products in the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee’s report.
Products containing lead are not typically used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Business Insider says itself that just one company used 780 gallons of a product containing lead between 2005 and 2009, citing the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee Hydraulic Fracturing report. By Business Insider’s own admission, this was an extremely isolated occurrence.
Hydrogen Fluoride can be found in wheel cleaner, wire cleaner and rust remover.
Also known as hydrofluoric acid when dissolved in water – which is what 95 percent of fracking fluid is composed of – hydrogen fluoride can be bought at hardware stores and is used in highly-diluted concentrations in fracking fluids. The chemical is only harmful in substantial amounts. Hydrogen fluoride is also not a widely used chemical in fracking fluid, as the chemical was a component of just two products in the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee Hydraulic Fracturing report.
Carpet cleaner contains naphthalene.
Again, context and concentration are essential. Exposure to VERY LARGE AMOUNTS of naphthalene can be dangerous, but exceedingly small amounts are included in fracking fluid. Naphthalene is used as carrier fluid for the active surfactant ingredients of fracking fluid. It was found in 44 products used by the 14 companies that participated in the 2011 U.S. ECC report.
As covered earlier, surfactants have been found by a University of Colorado-Boulder study to be no
more dangerous than common household substances.
Detergent, dish soap and aquarium water clarifier contain sulfuric acid.
Used to dissolve minerals in the fracking process, this is probably the scariest sounding chemical on this list. But is important to understand the tiny concentration used in fracking fluid. All acids account for just 0.123 percent of fracking fluid, and the concentration of sulfuric acid in fracking fluid is less than the soap you use to wash your hands every day. Sulfuric acid is also not widely used in fracking fluid, as it was found to be a component of just nine products used by the 14 companies that participated in the 2011 U.S. ECC report.
Though it sounds sinister, crystalline silica, in layman’s terms, is just sand and can be found in glue, paint and pesticides. The sand is used a proppant in the fracking process. Activists have raised concerns about silica dust exposure at fracking sites, but industry has taken significant steps to address the issue.
Silica exposure has decreased in recent years thanks to Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. Though there are legitimate health concerns associated with silica dust exposure, the effects of exposure to the substance in the fracking industry have been exaggerated by activists. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said that “There is no historical evidence of any silicosis-related deaths for the fracking industry.”
Formaldehyde is included in glue, car wax, drywall adhesive, caulk, grout and insulation.
Once again, understanding the concentration level is essential. North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack summed it up in a comment that appeared in a report EID highlighted last year, saying that formaldehyde concentrations (in fracking fluids) “are so small that the fluid is diluted well below toxicity levels considered harmful.”
Formaldehyde is also not widely used in fracking fluid, as it was found to be a component of just 12 products used by the 14 companies that participated in the 2011 U.S. ECC report.
What could be scarier than the unknown, right?
A favorite myth of anti-fracking activists is that there are secret fracking chemicals. They choose to ignore the fact that the federal Community Right-to-Know Act requires operators to submit and regularly update detailed Material Safety Data Sheets and provide them to first-responders and other emergency personnel in case of an on-site accident. State regulators are also made aware of chemicals used in fracking fluid and have access to all the information they need regarding their safe use.
The U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee’s Hydraulic Fracturing Report indicates that some fracking companies do not even know some of the “off the shelf” chemicals it they purchase from third-party suppliers. That is because those third party suppliers have the right to disclose some chemicals as confidential business information (CBI) , just as any U.S. company has the right to protect its intellectual property. Still, those third parties are subject to the same Community Right-to-Know Act standards listed above.
Producers also voluntarily report to the nationwide, searchable database FracFocus. And according to a recent EPA report on FracFocus version 1.0, although 70 percent of disclosures had at least one CBI ingredient, information on the general chemical class is frequently provided, and a vast majority of those chemicals protected as intellectual property have been deemed non-hazardous by the EPA.
The Obama administration has lauded FracFocus for providing transparency, as energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal said this about the online database: “As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people.”
Activists’ distortions of the quantity of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process were recently exposed by an EPA study. Rather than 600 chemicals in the average fracking treatment, as has been claimed by many activists, an average of 14 are used.
Now, the exaggerated danger of that handful of chemicals perpetuated by the anti-fracking movement is being exposed as well.
Again, concentration and exposure are two of the biggest factors when it comes to levels of danger to the public. And chemical concentrations in fracking fluid are very low, and thanks to well construction standards, exposure to these compounds is often times greater in your kitchen or garage.