Fracking taps a mile-deep danger

Fracking taps a mile-deep danger by Rachel Morgan, January 28, 2013, Timesonline
Judy Armstrong Stiles had no idea what she was signing away when she and her husband Carl agreed to let Chesapeake Energy operate natural gas wells on their Bradford County land. That was three years ago. For Carl, it was a lifetime. Soon after the company started using hydraulic fracturing to develop the horizontally drilled wells, both she and her husband began suffering severe rashes. They also complained of stomach aches, dizziness, fatigue, aching joints and forgetfulness, Stiles told Shalefield Stories in November 2012. “We saw doctors who tried to figure out what was wrong with us,” she said. “Our symptoms mirrored so many other diseases and disorders. The doctors could not figure out what the problem was, and our health kept deteriorating.”

A few months later, a large hole that gave off a terrible smell and leaked a foam-like substance opened in their front yard.
Then their daughter moved in and soon she, too, was sick. Stiles said they paid to have their water tested — water Stiles said was yellow and odorous. The test showed their water was contaminated with lead, methane, propane, ethane, ethene, barium, magnesium, strontium and arsenic. They called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which made a “visual determination” that their water contained methane. “We felt that we finally had proof that our health problems were a result of some sort of contamination.”

Stiles then requested a blood test from her doctors; they found barium and arsenic. But the doctors, Stiles said, couldn’t treat her because they didn’t know what else was in her blood. Chesapeake, along with other energy companies, is not required to disclose the chemicals in the fluids used for hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking. The family soon abandoned their home and moved in with relatives, unable to sell their house. Radon tests came back, Stiles said, showing radon gas in the air around their home. Trace amounts of radium-226, radium-228 and uranium were found in the home’s water. In February 2011, Carl was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Their daughter, then pregnant, had seizures and lead poisoning. “I’d like to say that after moving out, our health improved, but it did not,” Stiles said. Her daughter still has seizures and cannot work or drive.

Carl, his health rapidly deteriorating, killed himself. “I don’t blame him — he was in too much pain, and his doctors could not help him,” Stiles said. “I lost my home, my health and my husband. I want hydraulic fracturing stopped.”

Judy’s story is one of many collected from the shale regions of Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado. They are among the many stories of traumatic health effects linked to hydraulic fracturing. And those accounts of despair and disease are underlined by the many toxins associated with the fracking water pumped into gas wells and the wastewater extracted from those wells. Radium-226 is one of those wastewater poisons. In fracking wastewater pumped from the mile-deep Marcellus shale in the northeastern United States, radium can reach levels 3,000 times the limit for drinking water and 300 times the limit for nuclear industry discharge. And it can have potentially devastating health effects. “Radium is of concern because when ingested or inhaled, it concentrates in bone and can give rise to leukemia,” said Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist from the University of Michigan and senior associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, radium is a naturally occurring, silvery white radioactive material formed by the breakdown of uranium and thorium. Radium, the agency says, can exist in several forms — also called isotopes. Radium-226 and radium-228 are the two most commonly found isotopes found in the environment. When radium decays it divides into two parts. One part is called radiation, and the second part is called a daughter. The daughter, like radium, is not stable; and it also divides into radiation and another daughter. The dividing continues until a stable, nonradioactive daughter is formed. During the decay process, alpha, beta and gamma radiations are released. Alpha particles can travel only a short distance and cannot travel through your skin. Beta particles can penetrate through your skin, but they cannot go all the way through your body. Gamma radiation, however, can go all the way through your body.  The Marcellus is full of radium-226, which has a half-life of 1,600 years. This means it can stay radioactive for anywhere from 1,600 to 3,200 years. Radium gets into the body either by consumption or inhalation, the EPA says. About 20 percent of all radium swallowed enters the bloodstream, and it usually accumulates on the bones. Radium can cause anemia, cataracts and increased broken teeth and cavities, as well as increased instances of bone, liver and breast cancer. The EPA classifies both radon gas and radium as “potent human carcinogens,” and also says that long-term exposure to radium increases the risk for lymphoma, bone cancer, leukemia and aplastic anemia.

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 limit for industrial discharges to water.

Ivan White, a career scientist for the National Council on Radiation Protection, authored a report for the New York-based Grassroots Environmental Education that says fracking can produce waste much higher in radiation than previously thought. His report states that “radioactivity in the environment, especially the presence of the known carcinogen radium, poses potentially significant threat to human health.” [Emphasis added]

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