EPA Allowed Toxic Chemicals for Fracking Since 2011

PFAS are a highly toxic class of compounds linked to cancer and birth defects.

Oil Production in Santa Barbara Wine Country

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It is already well known that fracking is bad news for public health. It spews toxic air pollution and can contaminate drinking water. As an invasive method for extracting oil and gas, it also contributes to the climate crisis, which a Lancet study called the greatest global health threat of the 21st century.

But now, a new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) has found something that makes fracking “even more worrisome from a health perspective,” as PSR Director of Environment & Health Barbara Gottlieb tells Treehugger: fossil fuel companies have used toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—or substances that can degrade into PFAS—in more than 1,200 fracking wells in six U.S. states between 2012 and 2020. 

“Oil and gas companies are using these terribly dangerous, persistent forever chemicals in oil and gas wells in a number of states around the country, and we don't even fully know where,” Gottlieb says. 

PFAS and Fracking

PFAS are a growing concern outside of fracking, of course. They have been used widely in many industries since the 1940s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including as stain and water repellents on fabrics, on nonstick cookware, and as fire-fighting foam. 

They are concerning because they linger in the environment and the human body for a long time, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” Certain PFAS, in particular PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to health problems in humans and animals, including reproductive and developmental problems, impacts on the immune system, and cancer. While PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the U.S., they persist in the environment and can be imported from abroad, while other PFAS are still in use. 

The new report adds to these concerns by documenting the use of these chemicals in oil and gas operations for the first time. 

The discovery came about when attorney and report author Dusty Horwitt filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the EPA for all the chemicals used in oil and gas operations. He received thousands of pages in response, including a 2010 EPA review of three new chemicals the industry proposed for use in fracking. The agency expressed concerns that those chemicals could degrade into a substance similar to PFOA and go on to harm human health. Despite these concerns, the EPA approved these chemicals. Their own records indicate that one of them was used for unspecified purposes as late as 2018. The records only provided the generic name of the chemical: fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer.

To further discover where the chemical might have been used, PSR searched for it in a database called FracFocus, in which companies disclose the chemicals they use in individual fracking wells. While PSR did not find an exact match, it did find evidence that chemicals with similar names had been used in more than 1,200 wells in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming.

However, Gottlieb points out that the chemicals’ use could be much more extensive than that since different states have different laws about what companies need to disclose. The database covers more than 20 states, but fracking occurs in more than 30.

“The evidence that people could be unknowingly exposed to these extremely toxic chemicals through oil and gas operations is disturbing,” Horwitt said in a press release. “Considering the terrible history of pollution associated with PFAS, EPA and state governments need to move quickly to ensure that the public knows where these chemicals have been used and is protected from their impacts.”

More to Learn

The geographical extent of the exposure is just one of the many things PSR doesn’t yet know about the use of PFAS in fracking. Gottlieb noted the documents PSR received were heavily redacted, as companies will protect even their name and location as “confidential business information.” Often, the name of specific chemicals and their intended use is also blacked out. 

“There’s so much information that is withheld from the public view,” Gottlieb says. 

However, it is possible to guess how PFAS might be useful in fracking. Because they are often used to make things more slippery, they could be used to lubricate drill bits or help ease the passage of water and chemicals into the rock being fracked. Or they could be employed as foaming agents to help push chemicals down into the fractured rock. 

How humans might end up coming in contact with these chemicals is equally uncertain. 

“We’re certainly most worried about the water-born pathways,” Gottlieb says. 

The industry tries to bring up most of the chemical soup it injects into the Earth, but some of it stays underground and has been known to contaminate wells. The same could potentially be true of PFAS. Of the chemical mix that is brought back up, some of it is reused and some of it is stored in waste-water ponds, which are subject to evaporation. 

Further, the transport of the waste by truck presents another risk, as those trucks have been involved in accidents and rollovers, spilling their contents into the environment. Finally, there is an especial danger for the workers directly involved in the fracking process. 

“There are many opportunities for potential dangerous accidental human exposure,” Gottlieb says.

What Now?

PSR offers several immediate recommendations in response to the report findings. 

  1. The EPA and/ or state agencies should determine if the use of PFAS in fracking poses a risk to human health.
  2. Agencies should determine where exactly these chemicals have been used in fracking and where the waste has been disposed of.
  3. Oil and gas companies should be required to fund this testing and any necessary cleanup.
  4. All governments should mandate the disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking before the process begins. 
  5. The use of PFAS in fracking should be banned altogether until research into their impacts has been completed.
  6. Governments should limit fracking itself.

“There’s no safe way to frack safely,” Gottlieb says. “And the threats to human health are just too great. PFAS is only one of them.”

Ultimately, Gottlieb also hopes for a different relationship with the EPA, which did, after all, approve the chemicals in question despite concerns. 

“The EPA does not have a strong record,” Gottlieb says. “They have approved far too many chemicals to go into commercial use that then cause harm to the health of ordinary people.”

In response to the new data, an EPA spokesperson said that the agency would review PSR’s report. They also emphasized the agency’s commitment to dealing with PFAS pollution. 

“Under the Biden-Harris administration, EPA has made addressing PFAS a top priority,” the spokesperson tells Treehugger in an email. “Over the past few years, science has progressed rapidly, and the agency is moving forward with actions that are based on this new science and a better understanding of the complex challenges so many communities are facing.” 

There are signs that the Biden administration, and new EPA administrator Michael Regan, are sincere in their desire to tackle PFAS. Regan spoke at a conference this week focused on PFAS contamination generally. 

“That’s very encouraging. Now we need to see the action behind the words, but I have all confidence that administrator Regan will be taking action,” Gottlieb says. “We’ll be watching.” 

View Article Sources
  1. "Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States (Final Report)." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Srebotnjak, Tanja, and Miriam Rotkin-Ellman. "Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities." Natural Resources Defense Council, 2014.

  3. Watts, Nick, et al. "The 2018 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Shaping the Health of Nations for Centuries to Come." The Lancet, vol. 392, no. 10163, 2018, pp. 2479-2514., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(18)32594-7

  4. Horwitt, Dusty J.D. "Fracking with "Forever Chemicals"." Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2021.

  5. "Basic Information on PFAS." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.