Three recent studies on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are in the news. The News & Observer reports today on a study by researchers at Duke University and the University of Missouri that found that fat cells extracted from mice grew fatter after “marinating” in fracking wastewater for two weeks.

The public health implications from this research are enthymematically obvious. The report adds some context to it, however, noting that the study “does not assert that water in fracking zones is contaminated” and “does not prove that fracking causes obesity in people.”

Some things to know about what is injected in a well during a fracking operation:

  • Fracking operations typically take place more than a mile underground
  • Most of the injected material stays in the well
  • Over 99 percent of fracking fluid comprises water and sand
  • Other chemical additives are used to condition the water, prevent well casing corrosion, control the fluid pH levels, kill bacteria, etc.
  • Most of the other chemicals are also commonly found in household products, including personal hygiene products and sometimes even food

See the chart of the end of my report on “The Chemicals in Fracking Fluids: Earth and water, you’ll find plenty of both down there” for more information.

Yale and Penn State studies: No groundwater impacts from fracking

The Associated Press reported earlier this week of two other university studies looking at fracking’s effects on groundwater in Pennsylvania, the nation’s second-largest gas-producing state since the advent of fracking. Both studies found little impact from fracking on groundwater supplies, and their “results suggest that, as a whole, groundwater supplies appear to have held their own.”

Those results are in keeping with a growing body of academic and government research findings that fracking is an intrinsically safe operation that can be managed by proper well construction and regulatory oversight. I’ve discussed them under the “Fracking” tag here and also in my newsletter (herehere, and here).

From the report on the Yale study:

In a study published Monday, a team from Yale University installed eight water wells and drew samples every few weeks for two years — during which seven natural gas wells were drilled and fracked nearby — to measure changes in methane levels at various stages of natural gas production. Methane is not toxic to humans, but at high concentrations it can lead to asphyxiation or cause an explosion.

Researchers found that methane spiked in some water wells but attributed rising methane levels to natural variability, not drilling and fracking. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Natural variability “is potentially a lot greater than previously understood,” said Yale University hydrologist James Saiers, a study co-author. That’s important, he said, because residential water wells are typically tested only a few times before and after the start of drilling. “Before-and-after sampling might not be sufficient and might lead to misattribution of sources of methane,” Saiers said.

And regarding the Pennsylvania State University study:

Penn State University scientists, meanwhile, obtained an enormous trove of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection — 11,000 groundwater samples collected since 2010 — and, using what they said was a novel data-mining technique, concluded that water quality is either unchanged or even slightly improved for substances like barium, arsenic and iron.

The authors found slightly elevated concentrations of methane near only seven of 1,385 shale wells in the study area.

“It really doesn’t look like the groundwater chemistry has gotten worse, even though we’ve had this huge number of shale gas wells drilled,” said Susan Brantley, a Penn State geoscientist and study co-author.

Their research, which also looked at a small number of water samples taken before 1990, appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.