Fracking May Release Cancer-Causing Radioactive Gas, According to Surprising New Study

Penn homes near fracking sites have three times the national average of radon, the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Pennsylvania residents concerned about their state's fracking boom have another thing to worry about: radon. In a new study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that homes located in suburban and rural areas near fracking sites have an overall radon concentration 39 percent higher than those located in non-fracking urban areas. The study included almost 2 million radon readings taken between 1987 and 2013 done in over 860,000 buildings from every county, mostly homes. It was published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Correlation not causation, but still compelling

While no direct link has yet been established, the association between fracking and radon is compelling, particularly with one of the study's findings: "Between 2005-2013, 7,469 unconventional wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. Basement radon concentrations fluctuated between 1987-2003, but began an upward trend from 2004-2012 in all county categories," the researchers wrote.

That trending period just happens to start when Pennsylvania's fracking boom began: Between January 1, 2005, and March 2, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 10,232 drilling permits; only 36 requests were denied.

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but the data presents a persuasive case that fracking may indeed release radon from the bedrock of Pennsylvania, which sits on the shale gas-rich Marcellus shale, a 384-million-year-old formation of sedimentary rock that stretches some 600 miles beneath several states, including New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

According to the researchers, Pennsylvania "has had some of the highest indoor radon levels in the U.S."

Invisible killer

Odorless, tasteless and invisible, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is formed by the decay of uranium in rock, soil and water. Once produced, it moves through the ground and into the air, while some remains dissolved in groundwater where it can appear in water wells.

Found in all 50 states, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide, after smoking. The EPA estimates approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. are radon-related.

According to the National Safety Council, "Radon gas decays into radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe. As they break down further, these particles release small bursts of energy. This can damage lung tissue and lead to lung cancer over the course of your lifetime."

More studies needed

Across the border, New York's landmark ban on fracking followed a long-awaited report by the state's health department on the public health effects of fracking, which concluded that more studies are needed "to more fully understand the connections between risk factors, such as air and water pollution, and public health outcomes among populations living in proximity to shale gas operations."

While the relationship between fracking and radon merits further study, the Johns Hopkins researchers are clear about one thing that should worry anyone living near a fracking site: "The development of unconventional natural gas in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania has the potential to exacerbate several pathways for entry of radon into buildings."

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Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch, Truthdig, National Memo, Green America, Regeneration International, Revelist, Resilience and BlackBook, among others. Reynard is also the co-founder of MomenTech, an experimental production studio based in New York and Prague that has presented dozens of projects around the world exploring intersections of culture, history, politics, science and sports. Follow him on Twitter: @reynardloki or email him at [email protected]ind.media.