Study Finds Heavy Presence of PFAS in Fracking Chemicals

Researchers called for changes in Pennsylvania regulations to stop the use of PFAS in fracking chemicals.

A new report warns that rural areas may be at risk from the high amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in hydraulic fracturing operations, commonly referred to as “fracking”, indicating that widespread use of the toxic chemicals has been hidden for years as industrial trade secrets.

The report, Fracking with “Forever Chemicals” in Pennsylvania (PDF), was published late last month by Physicians for Social Responsibility, warning that oil and gas companies have used unconventional and toxic chemicals in fluids used to force natural gas from ground deposits. The report indicates that, since 2012, the industry used 160 million chemicals which went unidentified for years by classifying them as trade secrets, which contained PFAS and other dangerous additives.

Fracking is a controversial practice that has already been linked to drinking water contamination, air pollution and even increased incidence of earthquakes near fracking sites in recent years.

A report last year found that more than 1.4 million Pennsylvania residents live in a “threat radius” within half a mile or less from active fracking operations, which is not far enough to protect them from hydraulic fracturing health effects.

According to this latest report, between 2012 and 2022, the 160 million pounds of unidentified chemicals were injected into Pennsylvania soil by more than 5,000 fracking operations. It also found eight documented cases confirming that some of those chemicals were heavily contaminated with PFAS, which are widely referred to as “forever chemicals” since they are known to persist and buildup in the environment and human body.

“[T]his number of industry-reported instances may significantly underrepresent the reality of PFAS use in the Keystone State, due to the weaknesses in state reporting rules,” the report warns. “Oil and gas companies injected more than 1,200 wells with incompletely identified chemicals that could be fluorosurfactants, a class of chemical that includes multiple PFAS.”

PFAS Exposure Risks

PFAS include a group of over 9,000 man-made substances that have been widely used for decades, to resist grease, oil and water. However, there is growing evidence linking PFAS exposure to a myriad of adverse health effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

While most of the attention on the chemicals has focused on the use in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used to fight fuel-based fires and has resulted in widespread water contamination around military bases, airports and firefighter training locations, PFAS are also found in a number of consumer products, including food containers, bottles and wrappers.

3M Company and other manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, currently face thousands of AFFF foam lawsuits and PFAS water contamination lawsuits alleging that they have concealed findings that indicate the chemicals are highly toxic. Internal corporate documents uncovered during the litigation have revealed the manufacturers knew of the risks and health consequences since at least the mid-1970s, yet have continued to hide the truth from the public.

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The new report warns that if only a fraction of the unidentified chemicals used in fracking operations are PFAS, “they could pose a significant threat to human health.”

The problem is not just limited to Pennsylvania fracking operations, the report indicates, noting that 15 oil and gas companies operating in Pennsylvania used PFAS chemicals in fracking operations in other states as well. However, only two of those companies disclosed their PFAS use to the state.

Report Calls for End of PFAS Use in Fracking Wells

The Physicians for Social Responsibility issued a number of recommendations to address the problem. It called for a halt in the use of PFAS for oil and gas extraction, expanding public disclosure of what chemicals are being injected into the ground, increased testing and tracking of PFAS, funding for cleanup of PFAS from the environment, and changes to Pennsylvania regulations which would remove an exemption for the oil and gas industry that allows them to avoid the state’s hazardous waste reporting rules.

The report also called for the state to prohibit both production wells and wastewater disposal wells close to sources of drinking water, homes, health care facilities and schools, noting that underprivileged communities bear the brunt of toxic chemical exposure from fracking.

“Although drilling and fracking take place across the U.S., not everyone shares in the risks equally,” the report notes. “Rather, oil and gas infrastructure and associated chemicals are frequently located in or adjacent to lower-income, underserved, and marginalized communities, notably Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, as has been documented in a variety of studies.”


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