Fracking Workers Exposed to Benzene: CDC Study

Government researchers are warning that workers at hydraulic fracturing sites are at risk of being exposed to high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen that can cause leukemia and other forms of cancer.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the findings of a new study last week, evaluating the risk of chemical exposures that workers are likely to face during hydraulic fracturing, which is a controversial process of extracting natural gas from underground pockets.

Also known as fracking or hydrofracking, the process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground at very high pressures to break formations of shale. In cracking open the shale, pockets of hard-to-access natural gas and oil are released and extracted.

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According to the CDC fracking study, when extracting the liquids used to crack open shale and bedrock to free trapped pockets of gas, hydraulic fracturing also brings up naturally occurring, and sometimes dangerous, substances from underground.

The study was conducted by researchers from the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), who conducted air sampling of personal breathing zones and biological monitoring of workers who dealt with flowback liquids, which are stored in special tanks.

“Flowback refers to process fluids that return from the well bore and are collected on the surface after hydraulic fracturing,” according to the CDC’s NIOSH science blog. “In addition to the mixture originally injected, returning process fluids can contain a number of naturally occurring materials originating from within the earth, including hydrocarbons such as benzene.”

Out of 17 samples, 15 of those showed levels of benzene exceeding NIOSH standards of 0.1 parts per million (ppm) and averaged at more than double that, 0.25 ppm.

Benzene is an industrial chemical that is used as a solvent in the production of drugs, synthetics and dyes. It has also been used as a gasoline additive, although limits have been placed on its use in fuel due to benzene’s negative health effects.

Exposure to benzene has been associated with the development of several fatal forms of cancer, leukemia and other conditions, such as Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.

However, the study also found other chemicals were released as well, some of which may create fire and other safety hazards.

“The NIOSH research found that airborne concentrations of hydrocarbons, in general, and benzene, specifically, varied considerably during flowback and can be unpredictable, indicating that a conservative approach to protecting workers from exposure is warranted,” the researchers concluded. “Hydrocarbon emissions during flowback operations also showed the potential to generate flammable and explosive concentrations depending on time and where measurements were made, and the volume of hydrocarbon emissions produced.”

The study did not determine what risks there might be for local residents near fracking sites.

Fracking Concerns

Environmental groups and many residents near the hydraulic fracturing wells claim that the process can contaminate ground water and increases air pollution; claims the energy industry denies. A number of studies have also linked fracking operations to earthquakes.

Despite the known risks of benzene, there appears to be little NIOSH or other government agencies can do to protect workers. The hydraulic fracturing process, and many oil and gas operations, are exempt from laws meant to protect workers, and the CDC notes that includes NIOSH’s benzene standard.

Environmentalists and health officials have expressed concerns over hydraulic fracturing operations and the protections given to them by politicians in the name of domestic energy production. Government agencies have even been barred from knowing what the companies are injecting into the ground, as the hydraulic fracturing chemicals are deemed to be proprietary information that trumps public safety concerns.


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