The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified exposure to airborne silica as a health hazard for workers in the gas drilling industry who are involved in hydraulic fracturing. The hazards of exposure may extend to people who reside near gas drilling, as well as those in more widespread areas.
Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” is a method for extracting hard-to-reach natural gas deposits contained in shale formations thousands of feet under the Earth’s surface.
The process begins with the drilling of a deep vertical well that may also extend horizontally in one or more direction. Then, a combination of fresh water, silica sand, and a cocktail of up to 500 different chemicals are forced down into the ground under extremely high pressure. This pressure fractures and holds open pathways in the shale, allowing natural gas deposits to be released and travel up the well pipe to the surface.
Several states, including New York, sit atop deep shale formations that contain natural gas. The Marcellus and Utica shale beds are expanses of underground rock that span several states in the mid-Altantic. The Marcellus shale has been estimated to contain more than $3 trillion in hard-to-reach natural gas reserves. These estimates have been scaled back, however, at the same time that new doubts about the benefits of fracking are being raised.
Critics say that fracking devastates the environment by contaminating groundwater and underground aquifers.
This eventually spreads to streams and rivers and our fresh water supply. Environmental advocates have led successful campaigns to delay fracking in New York. But, in states such as Pennsylvania, fracking is a thriving industry with very little state oversight.
Now, the natural gas industry is expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, to take advantage of the Marcellus and Utica shale beds. New health, safety, and environmental concerns continue to emerge. Previously, water contamination was a major issue. More recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a warning that gas industry workers may be exposed to dangerous and toxic substances in hazardous concentrations.
OSHA Issues Silica Hazard Alert
In June of 2012, OSHA issued a hazard alert for crystalline silica exposures near natural gas drill rigs. This exposure places gas industry workers and nearby residents at an increased risk of developing silicosis. OSHA’s warning is based on field studies performed NIOSH at eleven drilling locations in five states. According to NIOSH, 47% of the dust samples analyzed from these locations had silica levels that exceed OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL); 79% of the dust samples collected exceeded NIOSH’s Recommended Exposure Limit (REL). Even worse, 31% of the samples contained silica levels more than ten times greater than the PEL; one sample had more than one hundred times the REL.
The NIOSH study and the hazard alert from OSHA—which specifically discussed overexposure risks from respirable crystalline silica—should be a wake-up call for the industry.
Workers, Community Members At Risk for Fracking Related Silica Exposure
During fracking, silica sand is added to fracking water in order to open small fissures in tight shale formations. This sand is made from crystalline silica, a common mineral in the Earth’s crust. Naturally occurring crystalline silica is known as quartz, and it is a key mineral in sand, clay, and stone.
For fracking, silica-based sand is specially selected and blended for high-pressure injection into the drilling hole, NIOSH and OSHA explains. This sand is about 99% silica, and makes up nearly 10% of a typical fracking mixture. A typical drilling site may require three to four million pounds of silica per frack.
The NIOSH study showed that the workers who operate sand moving and blending equipment, and workers downwind of sand operations, have the most serious exposure to silica. Even workers who are not in the immediate vicinity of sand operations are exposed to silica levels greater than the REL. Traffic at a well site creates silica dust, which also poses a risk to nearby communities.
Gas industry workers who handle silica sand have specific rights that protect them from serious harm, and provide information and training. NIOSH and OSHA both recommend that gas industry employers ensure their workers are appropriately protected from silica dust. Although industry employees have some protection under OSHA, nearby residents do not.
Health Effects of Silica
“Respirable crystalline silica” is particles of crystalline silica tiny enough to enter areas of the lungs used for breathing. Overexposure can cause silicosis (a chronic lung disease) and has been linked to several types of cancer. Clouds of silica dust also create environmental problems for nearby residents.
Silicosis presents added complications, because the period of time the disease is latent in the human body can vary widely. This latency period often depends on the type and duration of exposure to silica. OSHA says the latency period for silicosis can be as short as a few months in acute overexposure situations, and up to decades for low to moderate exposures. If exposures from fracking are as serious as early data shows, legal claims against the shale gas drilling industry could be imminent—as early as a few years away, as predicted by Law 360.
Silicosis is classified into three types:
- Chronic/Classic Silicosis
- Accelerated Silicosis
- Acute Silicosis
Symptoms of Silica-Related Lung Damage
Chronic/classic silicosis, which is the most common silicosis seen, typically occurs 10-20 years following low to moderate exposure to crystalline silica, according to NIOSH and OSHA. Symptoms are often not obvious, which means that those working or living in or near fracking sites need to receive chest X-rays to determine if silica-related lung damage has occurred. More obvious symptoms, experienced as the disease progresses include:
- Shortness of breath when exercising
- Clinical signs of poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange
Symptoms of later stage chronic/classic silicosis include:
- Extreme shortness of breath
- Respiratory failure
Silica exposure can lead to lung cancer, and has been linked to diseases including tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney and autoimmune disease, according to NIOSH and OSHA.
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