With remarkable dedication to informed decision-making, through his PA Environment Digest blog, David Hess has done it again. Thus, common-sense thinkers like me are aware of yet another liability that must be calculated against a disastrous myth: that natural gas is better for our wallets and planet than coal or oil. This week he pointed me to a Rolling Stone magazine article that investigated a link between the fracking of a gas well and cancer. The union is literally radioactive, a word we freak over when it comes to nuclear accidents, but sadly, not-so-much when we talk about radon, another substance of uranium decay. By spreading the word, Mr. Hess stands to illuminate a danger that the industry hopes would remain socially invisible.
Whether you’re in favor of or against the development of infrastructure for natural gas, you cannot deny that the hydro-fracking drilling industry has a big problem: wastewater. Volume for the nasty byproduct is measured in millions of gallons…for just one well. It isn’t enough that the industry turns life’s fresh water into a drilling agent by mixing in chemicals and salt. After they’ve injected it into the earth to fracture deep rock, it comes back to the surface laced with radioactive elements. In the Rolling Stone investigation, radium is pinpointed as the main ingredient for concern, because it is extremely dangerous when not handled properly, kinda’ like nuclear waste and chemotherapy drugs.
Uranium contains radium, a luminescent, heavy alkaline earth metal, which is well known to be a highly radioactive element. Health effects from significant radium exposure include cancer, anemia, cataracts, teeth fractures, and death. Radium becomes radon, which is a natural gas like methane. Radon is known to collect in basements. It’s also known to cause cancer. Public service announcements encourage owners and buyers to test for radon in their homes, but because radon (and radium) is naturally prevalent in the atmosphere, conspiracy theorists claim this is all a scam to sell test kits and mitigation systems.
The time it takes for radioactive atoms to decay into a more stable form is called an element’s “half-life.” The half-life of radon is about 4 days. The half-life of radium-226 is about 1,600 years. The decay eventually ends in lead. We are all exposed to small amounts of radium during our natural existence on earth. But like bad debts and earthquakes, the problems lie in the magnitude of its level. Mining digs up levels far higher than natural exposure, and in fracking’s case, this is transported through water. Unless handled carefully, if allowed to enter the ecosystem, radium is absorbed by plants and fish and then transferred to the animals that eat them. Thus, concentrated radium moves up the food chain.
The fracking industry is in business to collect and sell methane. Radium is part of the garbage the industry must dispose of, which it often does by spraying onto roads for “dust control” or marketing the salty brine as a de-icer. Combine this with other illegal clandestine methods, it ultimately shuffles the expense onto the unsuspecting public, leaving the victims to pay the real expense, an amount that never gets factored into the rate plans for natural gas.
Read the article if you want a thorough look at the problem. Or don’t. Either way, do not blindly buy into the industry’s mantra that natural gas is a “clean, affordable alternative,” at least not until you’ve taken some time to educate yourself about the true cost of natural gas. Thank you, Mr. Hess, for pointing out this addition to the ever-growing list.