The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are concerned about the effects of silica on workers in the gas drilling—fracking—Industry. There are also significant concerns that this hazard extends to area residents.
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, uses a cocktail of fresh water, sand, and a cocktail of more than 500 chemicals that, with the use of a high-powered drill, are injected into the ground through a long, horizontal well. The purpose is to reach a shale formation that is typically about two miles below the earth’s surface. During fracking, the one major additive to fracking water is sand—silica—which is used to open small fissures in the previously tight shale formations, explained Law360. Sand accounts for nearly 10% of the mixture and fracking sand contains about 99% silica. In any given drilling site, upwards of three-four million pounds of silica are used.
Fracking critics say fracking devastates the environment and contaminates groundwater and underground water aquifers; this contaminates nearby and widespread fresh water supplies. Until now, ground water contamination has been a major fracking issue; however, as Law360 notes, OSHA’s recent warning about dangerous silica levels adds another significant level to the fracking debate.
This June, OSHA issued a hazard alert concerning crystalline silica exposures at fracking locations and the increases to worker risks for silicosis. The warning was based on field studies conducted by NIOSH at 11 drilling locations in five states; 47% of the dust samples retrieved revealed silica exposures in amounts greater than OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL); 79% contained exposures greater than OSHA’s Recommended Exposure Limit (REL). Worse, 31% revealed silica exposures that were more than 10 times greater than the REL; one sample had greater than 100 times the REL, Law360 noted. The NIOSH data release in April 2012 and OSHA’s June 2012 hazard alert—which specifically discussed overexposure risks to respirable crystalline silica—should be a wake-up call to industry, says Law360.
During fracking, sand is delivered, loaded, transferred, and blended before injection, NIOSH/OSHA explains. That movement of silica sand in and through sand movers, transfer belts, and blender hoppers can release silica dust into the air and into workers’ lungs. This silica dust movement can also lead to visible, significant silica dust clouds which can hover over work sites and communities, which is what led to the high exposure measurements by NIOSH. Meanwhile, OSHA noted that traditional half-face respirators are insufficient protection for workers in high-exposure areas, said Law360.
OSHA-NIOSH explains that respirable crystalline silica is that part of crystalline silica minute enough to enter the lungs’ gas-exchange regions, which can cause silicosis and has been linked to a number of cancers. Silicosis presents added complications in that its latency period is not fixed and can depend on how and for how long exposure occurred. OSHA says the silicosis latency period can be as short as a few months in acute overexposure situations, and up to decades for exposures considered low to moderate, said Law360.
Symptoms of chronic/classic silicosis are not often 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 occurred. Early symptoms may include shortness of breath when exercising and clinical signs of poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. As the disease progresses, patients may experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, cough, and respiratory failure; lung cancer and diseases including tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney and autoimmune disease have been linked to silica overexposure, said NIOSH/OSHA.
Overexposure to respirable crystalline silica has long been known to cause silicosis and has been the focus of lawsuits for years, notes Law360. Steel workers and workers in other industries have been filing silicosis claims for decades. In fact, a recent wave of silicosis claims was seen from 2000-2004, prompting a federal silica multidistrict litigation (MDL) in 2003, explained Law 360. The MDL was, for the most part, halted after the judge issued an opinion that criticized plaintiffs’ counsel and medical experts. This led to mass dismissals of silica lawsuits, nationwide and to grand jury investigations of plaintiffs’ council and experts.
Should silica overexposure from fracking be as serious as what has been indicated in early data—and there’s no reason to believe otherwise—legal claims against the shale gas drilling industry could be more imminent than expected—within the next few years, Law 360 predicts.