California’s Fracking Fluids

The Chemical Recipe

August 12, 2015

California’s Fracking Fluids: Hydraulic fracturing: a risk to drinking water and air quality

Hydraulic fracturing: a risk to drinking water and air quality

The nationwide fracking boom has sparked rising concern about and research into the health risks of the chemicals used (Colborn 2011, Bolden 2015, Webb et al 2014, EPA 2015b). Fracking chemicals include known carcinogens, reproductive toxins and endocrine disruptors, and drillers use many new chemicals whose health effects are largely unknown (Souther et al 2014, Schnoor 2014, Stringfellow 2014). Disclosure of these hazardous or little-known chemicals is essential to inform the public, trace contamination and study the long-term effects on health and the environment.

The oil and gas industry has long maintained that fracking chemicals are not a threat to drinking water, but evidence to the contrary is growing.

  • A 2011 investigation by EWG and Earthjustice revealed that more than 25 years ago, an EPA study concluded that chemicals used to frack a 4,000-foot-deep natural gas well in West Virginia contaminated an underground drinking water source (EWG 2011).
  • In May 2015, a Penn State University study found a commonly used fracking chemical, known as 2BE3, in tap water from homes near fracked gas wells. The chemical is known to cause cancer in lab animals. Researchers said the contamination likely came either from a leak during drilling or a leaky wastewater pit (Llewellyn et al 2015).
  • In June 2015, the EPA released a draft report that concluded, “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources.” The federal agency said it found no “widespread, systemic impacts” but did find “instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” EPA said that in 2013, about 6,800 sources of drinking water nationwide, serving more than 8.6 million people, were within one mile of a fracked well (EPA 2015b).
  • A recent 2015 study of water supply wells in the Barnett Shale region of Texas found contamination from BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene), chlorinated compounds and alcohols. Although the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, could not definitely link the contamination to hydraulic fracturing, chemicals used in the process were identified in hundreds of wells in the region (Hildenbrand et al 2015).

Researchers have also documented health hazards from air pollution for people living near fracking sites:

  • A recent study by the Yale University School of Medicine found significantly more respiratory and skin symptoms among Pennsylvanians living within a kilometer of a fracking site than among those farther away (Rabinowitz et al 2014).
  • Air samples near oil and gas production sites in six states found benzene, formaldehyde and other known carcinogens at levels far above federal health standards (Macey et al 2014, Coming Clean 2014).
  • If inhaled, the crystalline silica sand used in fracking fluid can cause cancer or silicosis, an incurable scarring of the lungs (OSHA 2002).

Fracking has been used to increase production from California wells since at least 1953, but until recently the state’s oil and gas division did not keep records on fracking or even know where it was occurring (EWG 2012). Currently, fracking is used to produce about one-fifth of all oil in the state (CCST 2015). In 2013, mounting public concern about fracking’s health and environmental hazards pushed the state to adopt the most stringent regulations in the nation, including required notification of planned fracking jobs, disclosure of all chemicals added to fracking fluid4 and testing and reporting of chemicals in fracking wastewater.

However, recent revelations that the state illegally allowed disposal of oil and gas wastewater into potential sources of drinking water show that disclosure is not enough. EWG’s analysis reveals that because fracking is heavily dependent on the use of chemicals known to harm human health and the environment, it is by its very nature a toxic threat. California must go beyond ensuring the public’s right to know and take stronger steps to protect public health.


3 2-Butoxyethanol

4 California lets companies apply to the oil and gas division for permis- sion to withhold the exact formula of some “trade secret” additives from the website accessible to the public, but those details must still be reported to the state and the chemical constituents of those addi- tives must be publicly disclosed.