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Daily News Blog

04
Jun

The Pesticide Atrazine and 200 Other Toxic Chemicals Found in Fracking Wastewater; Contamination Goes Unregulated

 

Image by Kate Ausburn, Lock-on at AGL’s CSG fracking site at Gloucester, New Jersey (Photo: Gloucester lock-on against…/cc/flickr)

(Beyond Pesticides, June 4, 2020) A new, simultaneous chemical identification method has found the presence of the weed killer atrazine and 200+ other hazardous chemicals in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wastewater or produced water, according to collaborative research published in the Journal of Separation Science by scientists at the University of Toledo (UToledo) and the University of Texas at Arlington. Although produced water is a waste product of fracking, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows many states to reuse produced water in agriculture and other industries or dispose of it into waterways.

There is serious concern about the safety of produced water and it being a widespread source of pollution. Current disposal and purification practices do not guarantee environmental pollutant’s removal from produced water. This research, “Optimization of thin film solid phase microextraction and data deconvolution methods for accurate characterization of organic compounds in produced water,” highlights the need for comprehensive chemical composition assessment of produced water, whether for reuse or disposal. Currently, EPA waives requirements that chemical companies (e.g., Syngenta in the case of atrazine) monitor for the presence of pesticides in waterways, endangering public health of the environment.

Because produced water, whether treated or not, is typically not void of toxic chemicals, its safety is increasingly being called into question. Various toxic chemicals include biocides (poisonous substances like pesticides) that are used to kill interfering microorganisms, prevent pipe corrosion, and stimulate the extraction process. Some biocide formulations include ingredients like 2-(2-methoxy ethoxy) ethanol, diethylene glycol monomethyl ether—a reproductive toxicant that causes fetal abnormalities, organ deformities, and decreased male fertility (listed as a Prop65 chemical by the state of California). A Yale University public health analysis finds fracking operations release fifty-five chemicals into the air and water that are known carcinogens, 20 of which increase the risk of leukemia and lymphoma. Other fracking health implications include asthma and low birth weights. Oil and natural gas production is exempt or excluded from several major federal environmental laws (e.g., Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Superfund), allowing the industry to use produced water in agriculture or dispose of it in waterways without restrictions.

Emanuela Gionfriddo, Ph.D., assistant professor of analytical chemistry in the UToledo Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Green Chemistry and Engineering, states, “Our work [is] aimed to provide a new, simple and cost-effective method for the comprehensive characterization of chemicals and fill the gap of knowledge currently existing about the chemical composition of this waste product of the oil and natural gas industry.”

Oil and natural gas companies are researching ways to cut costs associated with the clean-up of produced water, as existing treatment processes using reverse osmosis and distillation to remove salts, and radioactive substances are expensive and may result in residual contamination.

In this research, chemists at the new Dr. Nina McClelland Laboratory for Water Chemistry and Environmental Analysis at UToledo created an optimized solid-phase microextraction (SPME) protocol using thin-film devices to distinguish organic compounds in produced water. The thin-film devices contain embedded polydimethylsiloxane (a silicone polymer) and hydrophilic‐lipophilic particles, restrained to a carbon, mesh surface. Thin-film devices’ characteristic properties make it highly reusable for general extraction analysis. To ensure extraction results are reproducible while maintaining the minimal chemical compound loss, chemists evaluated multiple parameters. Chemists extracted all organic chemical compounds in produced water samples for 15 minutes, followed by a 3-second rinse process. Post extraction, researchers used one‐dimensional gas chromatography in conjunction with mass spectrometry and data deconvolution to identify individual chemicals in the produced water samples. 

Scientists’ new SPME protocol allows efficient extraction of additives and hydrocarbons in produced water, simultaneously and tentatively identifying 201 chemical compounds from fracking wastewater samples. Chemicals include: the pesticide atrazine1,4-dioxane, an organic compound; toluene, a hydrocarbon solvent; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Public concerns surrounding extensive water use in hydraulic fracturing grow as well water use and produced water increased from 2011 to 2016 by 770% and 1440%, respectively. A 2017 study reveals that the oil and gas industry produced 380 million barrels of wastewater in Pennsylvania from 1992 to 2017, with one out of every seven barrels produced in 2017. Many states use treated produced water to irrigate organic and non-organic crops, compensating for excessive water use, as the federal government leaves fracking regulations largely up to state governments. Even if treated produced water bypasses agriculture use, oil and gas companies dispose of produced water in waterways or ground pits (wastewater disposal wells).

Oil and natural gas companies face a plethora of lawsuits by activist organizations, local communities, legislators for contaminating well water and groundwater sources, exposing residents and workers to toxic chemicals. Most recently, a federal judge awarded two Pennsylvania families $4.2 million in damages after fracking operations contaminated their drinking water. Other lawsuits heavily focus on the geological concerns surrounding fracking operations and earthquakes. According to the U.S. government geologists, Oklahoma endures more earthquakes than California, solely from fracking and produced water disposal wells. Some states (i.e., New York, Maryland) ban fracking altogether, citing concerns over health risks. However, even upon fracking ban, imports of fracking water for reuse or disposal to frack-free states still threaten human, animal, and environmental health.

Previous chemical analysis protocols make it nearly impossible to determine how much of a risk fracking poses as the fracking process uses chemicals unidentifiable by the initial analysis. However, the use of the new SPME protocol in this study can inform us of the exact chemical components in produced water. Dr. Gionfriddo notes SPME’s importance by stating: “Current methods for chemical characterization of produced water can give an estimate of the total amount of contamination but do not give information about what type of contamination is present. […] It could be that a molecule can be still very toxic even if present at very low concentration, or it has the potential to accumulate in the body over time, so the point is to know exactly what is in produced water, not only how much.”

Chemical carcinogens, solvents, and petroleum distillates are present in produced water, directly polluting drinking water sources. The 201 individual chemicals that researchers have found in produced water include 1,4-dioxane, toluene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and atrazine. 1, 4 dioxane is an eye and respiratory tract irritant. Toluene causes confusion, weakness, and vision and hearing loss—even at low exposure levels. Scientific evidence links polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to various skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach cancers. Health effects of atrazine exposure include fetal birth defects and cancer-causing endocrine disruption. Atrazine is of specific concern as the Trump Administration waives the requirement of multinational chemical company Syngenta-ChemChina to continue monitoring Midwest waterways for the presence of the weedkiller atrazine, through 2020. Produced water inputs into waterways—via disposal or run-off from agricultural use—and lack of specific pesticide monitoring can cause toxic chemicals to accumulate and synergize in the aquatic environment, polluting water sources.

Because of the known and unknown health hazards associated with toxic compounds found in produced fracking water, Beyond Pesticides believes its use in food production, in addition to disposal into waterways, is irresponsible. Chemicals in produced water are not always the same for every fracking operations, and many chemicals still need proper identification. Ronald Emmons, a UToledo Ph.D. candidate, relays the significance of researching interactions between chemicals in produced water and soil properties: “More research also is needed to test the uptake of these chemicals in crops when [recycling] produced water for agriculture. We need to study if and how these chemicals from the produced water can accumulate in the soil watered with produced water, and if these chemicals can transfer from the soil to the crops.”

Beyond Pesticides will continue to monitor and report on the use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals in fracking, as well as related government and industry actions, through the Daily News BlogAction of the Week, and its journal, Pesticides and You. Help divest from nonrenewable energy sources by using renewable resources and energy-conserving practices whenever possible. In a home powered by natural gas, cut down on gas use (and bill) by weatherproofing your house and lowering the thermostat when not home. Tell EPA to eliminate the use of produced water in agriculture, and regulate wastewater disposal.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source(s): Journal of Separation Science, University of Toledo

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