Chemicals in fracking fluids could elevate cancer rates, says doctor who treated benzene case

State officials say recent spills don't pose public health risk

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 6, 2013
The former president of the Colorado Medical Society says the current hydraulic fracturing boom in the state’s oil and gas industry is an “experiment in motion” for the public at large – one that could result in elevated levels of cancer throughout Colorado and the country.

Dr. Michael Pramenko, a family physician in Grand Junction, told Colorado Public News he isn’t as worried about acute cases of exposure to carcinogens in “fracking” fluid – although he has treated a patient who accidentally guzzled benzene – but is more concerned about long-term exposure from contaminated water sources.

“Are there people out there being exposed to low quantities [of carcinogens] that we won’t ever know about? Sure,” Pramenko said. “Are there going to be some cancers down the road that come about across the United States? I think that’s true. A lot of them? I don’t know.”
An oil pump near homes in Fort Collins
David O. Williams


Natural gas production in Colorado has steadily risen from 1990 to an all-time high in 2012, and oil production last year reached the highest level since 1957 – mostly due to the huge Wattenberg Field in the Denver Basin just north and east of the Denver metro area. Spills of tainted water and toxic chemicals such as benzene are also on the rise.

During one eight-month period of 2011, the state’s oil and gas industry spilled 2 million gallons of fluids, which state officials said was just one-twentieth of one percent of the overall 10 billion gallons of fluids the industry handled during that period. Overall, state officials acknowledge there are between 300 and 400 oil and gas spills reported each year in Colorado, but they say only about 20 percent contaminate groundwater.

Many of the spills are related to the millions of gallons of water used each year in fracking operations, which involves the high-pressure injection of mostly water, sand and what industry officials calls “trace” amounts of sometimes toxic chemicals into oil and gas wells to break open tight rock and sand formations and free up more hydrocarbons.

But spills have also occurred at major production facilities such as a Suncor refinery north of Denver in 2011 and a Williams gas-processing plant near Parachute on the state’s Western Slope earlier this year. Both spills resulted in levels of benzene higher than federal limits for safe drinking water in Sand Creek and one mile of the South Platte River (Suncor) and Parachute Creek (Williams).

“Parachute Creek is not a drinking water source,” said Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) spokesman Mark Salley. “While any spill is a concern to the environment and requires appropriate remediation actions, the Parachute Creek spill has not posed a risk to public health. Sand Creek is not a drinking water source, and although the South Platte River is a drinking water source, there are no municipal drinking water intakes below the confluence.”

As for the cumulative effects of the carcinogenic substances from up to 400 oil and gas spills around the state each year, Salley said the department closely regulates the industry to protect public health.

“The [CDPHE] has regulations in place, including required permitting, set-back requirements, use of ‘best practice’ methods by industry to minimize the impacts,” Salley said. “Just this year the department gained approval to begin the use of infrared sampling at oil and gas operation sites to identify leaks for repair.”

Critics say both the industry and the state can and must do more as drilling increases along the state’s more populous Front Range.

“As more and more drilling moves closer to communities and neighborhoods, there is going to be an increased call for stronger protections and that’s completely to be expected,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

“People are seeing rigs going in within easy viewing sightlines of their kid’s schools. They’re looking over their backyard fence at drilling rigs, and that understandably raises the question of what impact is this going to have on the air I breathe and the water my family drinks?”

Benzene, one of the most common industrial chemicals, is a petroleum-based product found in gasoline, diesel fuel, industrial solvents and paint. Long-term exposure can lead to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which is a cancer of the blood-forming organs.

A congressional report in 2011 found benzene was one of 14 known, probable or possible carcinogens (see list) used in fracking fluid formulas in Colorado and several other states by 14 leading oil and gas service companies between 2005 and 2009.

That’s alarming to Pramenko, who is particularly concerned about rural areas where drinking water often comes from domestic wells near drilling operations. Fracking, which occurs in more than 90 percent of oil and gas wells, also involves the storage of tainted fluids in holding ponds and the disposal of those fluids in deep-injection wells.

Pramenko treated Ned Prather, a DeBeque rancher and outfitter who five years ago accidentally ingested a glass of benzene-laced drinking water from his spring-fed well that the state later said was contaminated by a nearby Williams drilling operation.

“Equate it to a cigarette,” Pramenko said. “You’re not going to get cancer from smoking one cigarette. You’re not going to get cancer from drinking one glass of water. It’s repeated exposure.”

Prather, who told the Denver Post he was experiencing unexplained tremors even before the benzene-ingesting incident five years ago, didn’t respond to calls and emails inquiring about his current health or the status of a lawsuit he filed against Williams in 2010.

“I didn’t realize it, but he’s not able to talk to you,” Prather’s wife, Dollie said this summer. Their Fort Collins-based attorney also did not return a call requesting comment. Pramenko said such acute poisoning incidents are rare, but more worrisome are cases of long-term exposure to lesser amounts of carcinogens.

“So if you have a youngster growing up where you potentially have well water that’s above the limit on parts per million, then you could potentially get into some trouble from a carcinogen – benzene being one of them,” Pramenko said, adding that acute cases like Prather’s are somewhat of a red herring. As was the now infamous U.S. Senate committee testimony by Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier this year that he safely quaffed a prototype Haliburton fracking fluid.

“It’s not whether or not you would drink it once,” Pramenko said. “It’s whether or not he’d want his kids or grandkids growing up drinking that every single day. That’s the bigger question. If there’s a story here about the chronic exposure issue, it’s going to be 10 years down the road.”

Toxic chemicals in fracking fluid

FracFocus, a chemical disclosure registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, lists many of the chemicals currently being used in hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado. The organization reports that the average “frack job” in shale gas plays in the United States is 99.2-percent water.

The other .8 percent can be made up of a wide variety of substances – some of them toxic. In 2011, a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce report entitled “Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing” revealed the 14 most common “known, probable or possible” carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances found in hydraulic fracturing fluid between 2005-09:

Diesel: Heavy oil commonly used in to fuel diesel engines. Ingestion can cause loss of vision, coma, confusion, blood in stool, vomiting of blood, difficulty breathing and collapse.

Naphthalene: Found in plastics, toilet deodorizers and mothballs. Can cause abdominal pain, nausea, low urine output, low blood pressure and increased heart rate.

Formaldehyde: Found in building materials and numerous household products. Can cause burning sensation in eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty breathing and asthma attacks.

Sulfuric acid: Corrosive chemical found in car batteries, some detergents, toilet cleaners and fertilizers. Can cause burns in mouth and throat, throat swelling, speech problems, vision loss.

Thiourea: Used in photo developing, photocopying, making of synthetic resins and dye removal. Can cause collapsing, loss of vision, burns, low blood pressure, severe pain in throat and mouth.

Benzyl Chloride: A chemical intermediate used to make certain dyes. Can cause burns, irritation to eyes, nose, throat, headache, ataxia and confusion.

Nitrilotriacetic acid: Used primarily as a metal ion chelating agent and as a laundry detergent builder. Can cause irritation of eyes, skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal pain, seizures, muscle twitching, drowsiness, coma and cardiovascular collapse.

Benzene: A petroleum-based chemical found in gasoline, diesel fuel, industrial solvents, paint, lacquer and varnish. Can cause rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, nausea, vomiting and convulsions. Long-term exposure can lead to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which is a cancer of the blood-forming organs.

Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate: Used as a plasticizer in PVC and other polymers, including rubber, cellulose and styrene. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, liver and reproductive problems.

Acrylamide: Widely used in the manufacture of papers, dyes and other industrial products. Can cause abdominal pain, weakness, drowsiness, seizures, tremors and cardiovascular collapse.

Acetaldehyde: Used in the production of plastics, mirrors, varnish, disinfectants and other products. Can cause low blood pressure, slowed heart rate, bronchitis, fluid in lungs.

Ethylene oxide: Used as a sterilant for health care materials and in the manufacture of detergents, plasticizers and cosmetics. Can cause dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, seizures.

Lead: Naturally occurring metal once common in paint and gasoline. Can cause infertility, muscle and joint pain, nervous disorders in adults, anemia, muscle weakness and brain damage in children.

Propylene oxide: Used in the production of polyurethane foams. Can cause eye and respiratory irritation, skin irritation and necrosis and mild depression of the central nervous system.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society.


comments: 1 Comment on "Chemicals in fracking fluids could elevate cancer rates, says doctor who treated benzene case"

Joanne Corey – Sept. 11, 2013, at 6:57 a.m.

Even if benzene is not used in the fracking fluid, it is likely to be in the waste water because it occurs along with the oil and gas in the formation. For many people in close proximity to drilling and gas processing operations, the dangers of air exposures are even higher than those of water exposure, especially for more vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. For example, elevated benzene levels in blood and urine were found in those living near compressor stations in Dish TX.

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