Federal Study Shows Workers at Fracking Sites Exposed to High Levels of BenzeneSep 16, 2014
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that workers at hydraulic fracturing – fracking – oil and gas mining sites are exposed to high levels of the carcinogenic organic compound benzene.
NIOSH recommends that workers limit their benzene exposure to an average of 0.1 of a part per million during their shifts. But in measuring the airborne benzene workers would be exposed to in opening the hatches on flowback tanks at well sites, the researchers found that 15 of 17 samples exceeded the recommended exposure, the Los Angeles Times reports. In their article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, NIOSH researchers reported that benzene levels “reached concentrations that . . . potentially pose health risks for workers.” During their shifts, workers monitoring the flowback tanks must open the hatches as many as four times an hour to inspect and measure the contents.
To assess benzene exposure, NIOSH took air measurements over two-day periods at six oil and gas sites in Colorado and Wyoming, the Times reports. Sixteen workers at each site wore devices to sample the air throughout the day. In a 12-hour shift, they opened the tank hatches one to four times an hour to measure the contents, exposing them to volatile organic compounds for two to five minutes each time.
Benzene, a component of crude oil, “can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys at high concentrations.” The CDC explains that benzene interferes with the normal workings of cells and “can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.” Benzene also damages the immune system and long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
The benzene research is part of an ongoing project NIOSH launched in 2005 to assess the chemical exposure risks for oil and gas workers during the extraction phase, the Times reports. Previous research on worker health effects, much of it from the 1980s and 1990s, does not take into account new types of risks that come with fracking.