What the frac' is in those fluids


In the gas industry's "frac'ing" process, approximately a million gallons of fluid, under extremely high pressure, is injected underground, and, with explosives, creates fractures in the strata, freeing natural gas from its underground chambers.

Manufacturers of frac'ing fluids are allowed to keep their formulas proprietary, but they are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to supply a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each product. The MSDS doesn't disclose the precise composition, but is designed to inform those who handle, ship, and use the product about its physical and chemical characteristics. The sheets are also designed to inform emergency response crews in case of accidents or spills.

In April, a gas worker, Clinton Marshall, was exposed to a frac'ing fluid called ZetaFlow manufactured by  Houston-based Weatherford Fracturing Technologies (a global oil and gas services company that posted $1 billion profits on $7.8 billion in revenue in 2007). The spill occurred near a BP well on Southern Ute land in southwestern Colorado. Marshall went to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango for treatment. He was wearing a protective suit when the spill occurred, but took it off before entering the medical center. His emergency room nurse, Cathy Behr, donned gloves and a mask and removed his boots, which were damp with fluid, "in a very hot shower room." Marshall took a shower for 20 minutes -- standard procedure, says Behr, for chemical exposure.

Another nurse read the five-page MSDS Marshall had brought with him, and determined that everyone treating him should be wearing protective gear. 

By then Behr had a headache. Two days later she felt worse, and then she felt much worse. It was a slow progression, she says, but her organs began shutting down, including liver, lungs, kidney and heart. She was admitted to ICU, where doctors finally traced her problems to the chemical exposure and treated her with steroids, diuretics and mechanical ventilation.

Five days later she was released, but says she is still not well, and gets dizzy and short of breath when she tries to hike or fish -- activities she once enjoyed.

On the advice of a physician, Behr asked to testify at the Colorado Gas and Oil Conservation Commission's public hearing in Denver in June, but was refused because she had not signed up in advance. That's when she went to the press with her story.

"I'm not an enemy of the oil and gas industry," says Behr. "But I think there are way too many flaws in the system and too little knowledge. I had no idea the stuff is this toxic -- no one here did. The Public Health Department should be aware of what's out there on these drill sites."

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) has done a lot of work to expose what's in frac'ing fluids, and what the chemicals can do to humans and wildlife, either in compound form or by themselves. Using the information available in the MSDSs, TEDX has categorized the chemicals by their effects.

Analyzing 608 products with at least 457 chemicals, TEDX determined that more than 90 percent of the products have one or more adverse health effects. Of these, 17% have one to three possible health effects, and 83% have between four and fourteen possible health effects. The four categories with the highest exposure risk are (1) eyes, skin, and sensory organs; (2) respiratory system; (3) gastrointestinal tract and liver; and (4) the brain and nervous system.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will meet August 19-20 at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver for a rule-making session. Among the rules they will consider is number 205, requiring gas companies to keep an inventory for each location that identifies the volume and concentration of each chemical used, how it was used, and when and where it was used. The rule also requires the companies to keep the information on file for five years and make it available within three business days if requested by the commission.

Many wonder if this is a strong enough stand by the nine-member panel, which voted 5-4 not to hear Behr's testimony.

For more information, see the HCN's Writers on the Range piece by Eric Frankowski and the Durango Herald's series of stories.




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