Is Frack Sand a Health Risk?

The hydraulic fracturing process uses sand—a lot of sand. The sand is used as a “proppant” to prop open the cracks created during the fracturing process.

But it’s not just your ordinary seaside sand that is used. It’s a special kind of sand that is almost 100% crystalline (pure). When that sand gets into the air, its particles are so fine they can irritate the lungs, and according to some, may cause lung cancer. This is generally not a problem for landowners or others who live nearby a drilling site, as any airborne sand would quickly fall to the ground. However, it may be a health risk for workers handling the sand if they are not properly protected.

Author Elizabeth Grossman writes about the sand problem and reports on preliminary research done by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), at the ScienceBlogs website:

But one of the more pernicious and pervasive potential occupational fracking hazards may come from sand. Not just ordinary sand, but sand that is nearly 100% crystalline silica and specially produced to play a key role in every fracking operation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recently reported that this use of industrial sand is likely exposing large numbers of workers to unacceptably high levels of silica exposure, putting them at risk for developing the incurable lung disease silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, bronchitis, tuberculosis, scleroderma, renal disease, and respiratory failure.

Sand’s role in fracking has received relatively little attention outside of industry circles, but it’s vital to these operations. Frack sand gets pumped into wells along with the chemicals known as proppants to stabilize the wells in preparation for injection of water and other fracking chemicals. Sand is also used in well-site cementing jobs. As described by Well Servicing Magazine, a fracking operation depending on its size and complexity may use anywhere from a few tons to more than two million pounds of sand. U.S. production volumes of this sand have soared in the past few years to tens of millions of tons annually, prompting industry publications describe this as equivalent to a “gold rush.” In February, US Silica went public on the NY Stock Exchange with the first-ever IPO by a frack sand company.

Much of this sand is mined in open-pit quarries that can produce nearly pure silica or quartz sand then transported to processing plants by rail or truck for screening and washing. Mine development has become an environmental health and safety issue for a number of communities. Fracking sand (for which the American Petroleum Institute sets specifications) is typically delivered to wellsites by truck and then transferred to various pieces of equipment. According to the Well Servicing account, a typical truckload is about 25 tons, and many operations require more than one such truckload.  At the well site, sand is transferred to various pieces of equipment, often releasing dust in the process, for example when sand is moved into bins and special conveyors used to take the sand from delivery trucks to the machinery that will pump it into the well. The sites and vehicles themselves also stir up dust.

NIOSH recently reported the result of its air sampling to evaluate worker exposure to crystalline silica at 11 different fracking sites in five states – Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. At each site, exposures to respirable crystalline silica “consistently exceeded relevant occupational criteria” established by NIOSH, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). Ninety-two (79%) of the 116 samples exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure level (REL) and ACGIH threshold limit value, and  54 or 47% exceeded OSHA permissible exposure levels. NIOSH notes that the magnitude of exposures measured is particularly important: 36 or 31% of these samples exceeded the NIOSH REL by a factor of 10 or more. This means that even if workers are using half-mask purifying respirators properly, they would not be sufficiently protected.*

Read the rest of Ms. Grossman’s article by clicking below. There’s no doubt she’s anti-drilling. But this is a serious issue and must be addressed by those who support drilling.

*ScienceBlogs (Jun 4, 2012) – Frack sand: An easily overlooked occupational hazard