Published on November 30th, 2013 | by Don Lieber
Silica — #8 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series
This is one part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on mercury.
8. Silica (Silicon Dust/Fracking Sand)
Fossil Fuel Source: Natural Gas
Crystalline silica (“frac sand”) is a known human carcinogen; breathing silica dust can lead to silicosis, a form of lung disease with no cure.
Silica is commonly used, in huge amounts, during fracking operations. Each stage of the process requires hundreds of thousands of pounds of silica quartz–containing sand. Millions of pounds may be used for a single well.
The presence of silica in fracking operations, simply put, is a major safety risk with a high likelihood of dangerous exposure. Case in point: researchers from the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently collected air samples at 11 fracking sites in five different ‘fracking’ states (CO, ND, PA, TX, and AR) to evaluate worker exposure to silica. Every single site had measures higher than the NIOSH threshold for safe exposure — so high, in fact, that about ⅓ of the samples collected were even above the safe threshold for wearing a safety respirator mask. This was reported in May 2013 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.
The natural gas industry and its political allies have lobbied extensively against safety regulations and chemical disclosure laws; there are no federal or state standards for silica in ambient air, despite the high risks involved in acquiring lung disease. In 2006, the natural gas industry was given a waiver from the Clean Air and Water Act, granting the industry ‘free reign’ in using the chemicals it needed without the strict rules of disclosure and/or regulation which other polluting industries were beholden to. (The waiver, of course, was an executive branch ruling — that is, approved only with the permission of the Bush/Cheney White House.)
The industry exerts considerable influence in state policies as well, with particular influence in the main ‘fracking’ states: North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. The relationship between the former Governor of Pennsylvania and the gas industry is a strong example: Governor Tom Corbett, over his political career, received more than $2 million dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industries (oil, coal, and gas). Their support, arguably, was a crucial factor behind his 2010 election victory. In that election, the industry favored Corbett over his opponent, Dan Onorato, by more than 10:1, giving the Corbett campaign $1.3 million while only contributing $130,300 to Ontorato.
Corbett, ever the gentleman, said ‘thank you’ to his benefactors two years later when he pushed a law through the state legislature which restricted the rights of doctors from discussing with their patients potential links between symptoms and chemicals used in nearby fracking operations — adjacent to residential property, for example. (This was at the same time that numerous studies, including this one from the National Academy of Sciences, were reporting these very same links). This ‘gagging’ law by Governor Corbett was cited by the New England Journal of Medicine, which accused the gas industry of “infringing on clinical practice and the patient-physician relationship” in Pennsylvania.
The fracking industry, in fact, is increasing its use of silica. New ‘fracking techniques’ are currently being developed (using ‘shorter and wider’ fracks — see details here) which will use significantly higher volumes of silica dust than ever before. The industry, expecting a period of growth, is ignoring the high risks of lung cancer and, instead, touting the expected rise in ‘frack sand stock value’.
Note From The Author
There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.
History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.
In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.
Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.
It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.
The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.
This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.
New York City
Stay tuned for the remaining 7 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries. Tomorrow’s post will be on mercury.
Image Credit: lung cancer X-ray via Shutterstock