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Fracking Workers Breathe in Dangerously High Levels of Benzene Gas, Study Suggests

Sep 16, 2014

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that workers at oil and gas fracking sites are regularly exposed to large quantities of benzene gas, a known carcinogen. At 15 out of 17 sites, airborne benzene levels were higher than the 0.1 of a part per million recommended by the agency. Researchers said in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health that benzene levels “reached concentrations that, depending on the length of exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers.”

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a controversial process that uses a number of hazardous chemicals and large volumes of water and sand to extract gas or oil. The study looked at benzene exposure during a phase of oil and gas extraction known as flowback, where fluid returns up the bore of the well after the initial fracking process has already taken place. To measure the volume of the flowback liquids, workers open the hatch and insert gauging sticks into the tanks. 

According to LA Times, 17 flowback tank workers at six oil and gas sites in Colorado and Wyoming were included in the study. The researchers placed small air sampling devices on the workers' shirts in order to test the amount of exposure. Workers stand above open hatches inhaling fumes one to four times per hour over the course of a 12-hour shift.

The researchers state that benzene “is of major concern because it can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys at high concentrations,” According to the CDC, it disrupts the normal functions of cells. “It can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia,” the agency states, according to LA Times. “Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.”

The long-term health consequences of benzene exposure on oil and gas workers are unknown, according to Dr. Robert Harrison, director of Occupational Health Services at UC San Francisco. “With the rapid expansion of oil and gas production in the U.S.,” the dangers of benzene are ones “that we would want to pay attention to.”

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