Fracking has become the industry standard oil and gas production technique over the past ten years, but little is known about its long-term consequences on our environment. Now a new study reports a positive correlation between levels of radon gas and the presence of fracking operations in Pennsylvania, writes Ariana Eunjung Cha for the Washington Post.
Radon levels worryingly high in 42% of buildings
Researchers published their results in a journal named Environmental Health Perspective, revealing their studies into the colorless, odorless gas radon, which is radioactive and has been linked to lung cancer. Scientists analyzed radon levels in 860,000 buildings from 1989 to 2013, and found that those located near to fracking operations had higher levels of radon gas than those that were not.
The study shows that around 42% of readings were higher than the safe level set by federal standards. Overall radon levels were found to have spiked in 2004, at the same time as the fracking industry began to develop rapidly in the state.
The process of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to give it its technical name, sees huge drills burrowing 2,000-3,000 meters below the surface of the Earth. It is thought that radon gas that was previously trapped underground is now being released by fracking operations.
“By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface,” warned study co-author Joan A. Casey from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Growing concern over the effects of fracking
The majority of buildings surveyed during the study were homes, meaning that residents of Pennsylvania are being put at risk of suffering the adverse effects of radon exposure. Colorado is another state where fracking is booming, and researchers have voiced concerns about similar radon releases.
The U.S. Geologic Survey published a study in 2012 which found that water in the Appalachain Basin contained higher than average levels of radiation in areas in close proximity to fracking operations in Marcellus Shale.
Although fracking has significantly boosted U.S. domestic oil production and reduced the country’s dependence on the international market, it seems that the technique may have some previously unforeseen side effects for residents of areas in which it is carried out.