Another fracking threat: Silica sand putting workers, residents at risk of breathing problems

Of all the health and environmental threats posed by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling, one of the more dangerous may be that from silica sand.

Silica sand is used in the millions of pounds at fracking sites across the country. It, along with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water and a mix of hundreds of chemicals are ushered through an underground horizontal well until the mixture reaches a bed of shale rock about two miles below the surface. But the threat posed by silica sand may come long before it’s rushed into the well.

According to a report from The Huffington Post (, the Natural Resources Defense Council believes silica sand becoming airborne is putting the thousands of well workers and those living downwind of an active well at serious risk of health problems. It’s just one more reason why the U.S. should be wary of a rapid expansion of fracking drilling, even if the nation’s energy production rises and fuel costs drop.

At least 4 million pounds of silica sand are used at an active fracking well. The dust containing silica sand can be found everywhere near an active fracking site: on the roads, in the air, on people’s homes, and in their yards. When the sand is picked up by wind, it can spread far from the well site. Trucks that bring in the sand also help spread the toxic material where they go. Workers who unload the sand from those trucks or those who are charged with collecting the sand to be used in the drilling process also face high exposure risks.

Ingesting too much silica sand can lead to silicosis, a dangerous and irreversible health complication that is marked by breathing trouble. The disease gets progressively worse and only preventative measures can be taken to avoid it altogether.

Another recent study on the dangers of silica sand from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that most workers at a fracking well site are not protected from the dangers of silica sand exposure. A study from the organization examined 116 employees at 11 fracking sites across the country. At these sites, 79 percent were found to have dangerous levels of silica sand in the air samples taken. Almost one-third of these sites had silica sand levels at 10-times the recommended safe level and one site measured 137-times higher than that safe limit.

Troubling the researchers in the NIOSH study is that most of the workers at the fracking wells examined for the study were not wearing any sort of breathing apparatus that helped to filter out the silica sand. And, of course, no residents living closest to these wells are provided with any breathing apparatus that protects them from the dangers of silica sand dust.

On a windy day at a fracking site, white plumes of dust can be seen rising from a fracking well. These plumes are easily moved by the wind and spread that toxic silica sand dust over a widespread area.

In June, according to the report, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an alert based on the NIOSH findings and recommended ways that active fracking sites can reduce the risks posed by silica sand, including watering down areas where the sand is stored or transported but no regulations were passed that would hold drillers accountable for those corrections.

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