Fracking fluids ‘no more toxic than substances found in the home’

Surfactant chemicals found in samples of fracking fluid are no more toxic than substances commonly found in the home. 

This is the conclusion of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder who analysed samples of fracking fluid that were collected in five US states.

Fracking fluid is largely comprised of water and sand, but oil and gas companies also add other chemicals, including anti-bacterial agents, corrosion inhibitors and surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension between water and oil, allowing for more oil to be extracted from porous rock underground.

In a new study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the research team identified the surfactants found in fracking fluid samples from Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. The results reportedly show that the chemicals found in the fluid samples were also commonly found in products ranging from toothpaste to laxatives to detergent to ice cream.

‘This is the first published paper that identifies some of the organic fracking chemicals going down the well that companies use,’ said Michael Thurman, lead author of the paper and a co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. ‘We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home.’

In a statement, Imma Ferrer, chief scientist at the mass spectrometry laboratory and co-author of the paper said, ‘Our unique instrumentation with accurate mass and intimate knowledge of ion chemistry was used to identify these chemicals.’

The fluid samples analysed for the study were provided through partnerships with Colorado State University and colleagues at CU-Boulder.

Hydraulic fracturing, which is usually shortened to ‘fracking,’ is a technique used to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from the ground by forcing fluid down the well.

In the US alone the number of natural gas wells has increased by 200,000 in the last two decades, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Among the concerns raised by the fracking boom is that the chemicals used in the fracking fluid might contaminate ground and surface water supplies. However, determining the risk of contamination – or proving that any contamination has occurred in the past – has been difficult because oil and gas companies have been reluctant to share exactly what’s in their proprietary fluid mixtures.

Recent state and federal regulations require companies to disclose what is being used in their fracking fluids, but the resulting lists typically use broad chemical categories to describe the actual ingredients.

The University said that the results from the new study are important not only because they give a picture of the possible toxicity of the fluid, but because a detailed list of the ingredients can be used as a ‘fingerprint’ to trace whether suspected contamination of water supplies actually originated from a fracking operation.

The authors caution that their results may not be applicable to all wells. Individual well operators use unique fracking fluid mixtures that may be modified depending on the underlying geology.

Ferrer and Thurman are now working to analyse more water samples collected from other wells as part of a larger study at CU-Boulder exploring the impacts of natural gas development.