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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has raised fears that the chemicals used in the practice could poison ground and surface water, and one study even suggests that it can degrade local air quality. But a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU-Boulder) says many chemicals used for fracking are no more toxic than chemicals commonly found in the average household.
The scientists sampled fracking fluid in five states. The fluid is made up mostly of water and sand, but also contain chemicals, including “surfactants.” Because these “surface-active” agents lower the surface tension in water, they are used in a variety of substances, including household detergents, for example, to help dissolve organic matter on dishes and kitchen surfaces.
In fracking, surfactants reduce the surface tension between water and oil, allowing a freer flow of oil from porous shale deep underground. And the fracking fluid samples from Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas, the researchers found, contain chemicals, including surfactants, that are commonly found not only in household detergents but also in toothpaste and ice cream. Their study was published in journal Analytical Chemistry.
Michael Thurman, lead author of the paper and a co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, told the school’s news department, “We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home.” Or, in the case of ice cream, down their own throats.
Fracking is especially controversial because it is economically valuable. It has led to a boom in oil and gas extraction around the country. But environmentalists have had trouble proving their suspicions of water and air contamination because companies that frack use proprietary mixes of chemicals in their fluids and have been loath to disclose their exact makeup for fear of helping a competitor.
Even under new federal and state regulations requiring disclosure, the companies’ ingredient lists tend to be more generic than specific.
The CU-Boulder team stressed that their findings may not apply to all wells in use around the country. Each driller has a unique recipe for a fracking fluid, they said, and each recipe is tweaked depending on the geology of a given drilling site. As a result, Thurman and Imma Ferrer, chief scientist at the mass spectrometry laboratory where the fluids were tested, are now analyzing fluids from more wells.
In addition, Thurman said the concerns about fracking aren’t limited to potential pollution of water and air. They involve the presence of antimicrobial biocides, the danger of fracking wastewater triggering earthquakes and the waste of enormous volume of water needed for the process that can never be reused.
But as for polluting local waters, Thurman said, “What we have learned in this piece of work is that the really toxic surfactants aren’t being used in the wells we have tested.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com