EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to specify that it was only the surfactants in fracking fluid that were found to be no more toxic than common household products.
Some of the chemicals found in fracking fluid collected in five states — including Colorado — were no more toxic than common household substances, according to a newly released study by researchers at the University of Colorado.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Analytical Chemistry, found that the “surfactant” chemicals in the fracking fluid samples also were found in everyday products such as toothpaste, detergent, ice cream and laxatives.
Michael Thurman, co-founder of CU’s Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry, said this is the first published paper to identify some of the organic fracking chemicals going down into wells.
“At least so far, we’re finding chemicals that are more friendly to the environment,” Thurman said. “The compounds are not the kinds of things we consider toxic.”
The study examined samples from Colorado, Nevada, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Texas. According to the researchers, fracking fluid is comprised mostly of water and sand, but oil and gas companies add a variety of other chemicals such as anti-bacterial agents, corrosion inhibitors and surfactants — chemicals that reduce the surface tension between water and oil.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a technique used to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from the ground by forcing fluid down a well.
There have been concerns about the chemicals used by oil and gas companies in fracking. Recent state and federal regulations require companies to disclose what is being used in their fracking fluids, but companies typically use broad chemical categories to describe the actual ingredients to avoid revealing what they consider proprietary information.
The study used a mass spectrometry laboratory sponsored by Agilent Technologies Inc. to more closely examine the surfactants in the fracking fluid samples.
“Our unique instrumentation, with accurate mass and intimate knowledge of ion chemistry, was used to identify these chemicals,” Imma Ferrer, chief scientist at the mass spectrometry laboratory and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.
Lack of chemicals ‘really important’
Thurman said one of the challenges was obtaining samples to study.
The published study included eight samples, while he’s since increased that number to more than a dozen. He said the samples came from several sources: CU and Colorado State University, both of working are working on projects with drilling companies; the Environmental Protection Agency; and a company in Denver that is working to treat water used in fracking.
The researchers cautioned that individual well operators might use different chemicals based on location, and said there are still other concerns about fracking, including air pollution, the antimicrobial biocides used in fracking fluids, wastewater disposal triggering earthquakes and the large amount of water used.
But Thurman said water pollution from surfactants in fracking fluid may not be as concerning as some people had thought, with the really toxic surfactants, such as endocrine disruptors, not being used in the wells that were tested.
“Not finding those chemicals is really important,” he said.
Thurman said he plans to continue analyzing the surfactants used in fracking and wants to look at more samples to determine if those he identified in the study are in fact used widely. If they are, he said, they could be used as markers to determine if a well or other groundwater source has been contaminated by fracking fluid.
‘Facts aren’t so scary’
Cliff Willmeng, of the anti-fracking activist group East Boulder County United, declined to comment on the study itself, saying instead that “we’re missing the point,” with studies such as CU’s diverting the conversation away from whether communities should ban fracking.
“This is a question of community rights versus corporate power,” he said. “We don’t need a study to conclude that democratic power comes from the people.”
Willmeng added that Durango emergency room nurse Cathy Behr in 2008 went into organ failure after treating a worker who was exposed to fracking fluid, showing that it’s dangerous.
But Courtney Loper, the western field director for Energy in Depth, said the study backs up the oil and gas industry’s assertion that hydraulic fracturing is a fundamentally safe technology.
“Anti-fracking activists have been making alarming claims on this subject for many years, but the facts aren’t so scary at all,” she said. “The chemicals the oil and natural gas industry uses in hydraulic fracturing are a tiny fraction of the total fluid composition, and many are very similar to the kinds of products you keep under your sink and that other industries use routinely without controversy.”
Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars contributed to this report.