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Fracking May Pollute Groundwater with More Chemicals Than Previously Thought

First Posted: Jun 26, 2014 12:08 PM EDT
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It turns out that there may far more contamination from fracking than once thought. Scientists have found that the oil and gas extraction method known and hydraulic fracturing may contribute more pollutants to groundwater than previous research has suggested.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, involves inject large volumes of fluids underground at high pressures. These fluids are combined with chemicals that help release gas and oil trapped in cracks in hard rock. The gas and oil is then extracted and the wastewater, in theory, is disposed of properly.

That said, there's been a lot of controversy surrounding the practice of fracking. One problem involves flowback, which refers to the fluids that surge back out of the fracked wells during the process. This flowback contains water, lubricants, solvents and other chemicals. Spills have occurred before, and research has linked fracking to groundwater contamination that could have serious health effects.

Although past research has looked at fracking, it hasn't addressed one factor that could play a large role in groundwater contamination: colloids. These are tiny pieces of mineral, clay and other particles that can attract heavy metals and other environmental toxins.

In order to simulate what would happen to colloids in the soil after a spill, the researchers flushed flowback fluids through sand with a known amount of colloids. In the end, they found that the fluids dislodged about a third of the colloids, which is far more than deionized water alone. In fact, the fluids picked up an addition 36 percent.

"This indicates that infiltration of flowback fluid could turn soils into an additional source of groundwater contaminants such as heavy metals, radionuclides and microbial pathogens," write the researchers in a news release.

The findings reveal the importance of preventing these spills from happening in the first place since contamination would be far greater than previously thought. It's crucial to monitor fracking activities to make sure that safe practices are met for the sake of groundwater and the environment.

The findings are published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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