Silica: The New Asbestos?

South Carolina has no oil or gas reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So we don’t have to worry about the hazards to health and the environment caused by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Right?

Actually, while the direct consequences of fracking — such as leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater — are not going to be a problem for residents of the Palmetto State, indirect consequences of the fracking process could be.

Fallout from Fracking in South Carolina

Fracking is a method of releasing oil or gas trapped between layers of shale. It is done by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock to break (or fracture) it and free the oil or gas. There are an estimated half-million fracking wells in the U.S., a rapidly expanding industry that calls for huge amounts of water and sand… and that’s where South Carolina enters the picture.

The demand for the particular kind of sand used in fracking has mirrored the explosive growth of the alternative method of drilling for oil and gas themselves. According to Environmental Working Group, composed of scientists, policy experts and others concerned about public health: the number of frac sand mines in operation has increased by 145 percent over the last decade.

Most of the frac sand mining in the U.S. is concentrated in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but a report released in September 2014 by the Civil Society Institute’s Boston Action Research group identified 12 additional states where the fine-grained sand is available, including South Carolina.

South Carolina Counties Most At-Risk – Including Richland

Frac Sand SilicaA map included with the report shows a belt of counties across South Carolina that are rich in quartz sand, or silica. McCormick, Greenwood, Edgefield, Saluda, Newberry, Lexington, Fairfield, Richland, Lancaster, and Chesterfield counties are likely areas to be tapped to provide some of the billions of pounds of frac sand needed for fracking wells in other states.

A single fracking well can use as much as 10,000 tons of sand. An October 2014 report by McClatchy estimated 95 billion pounds of frac sand would be used by the end of that year, up 30 percent from the previous year.

Silica – The New Asbestos?

Some people think the economic benefits of such mining must be weighed against the potential hazards. They speculate that silica will become the new asbestos — that is, that diseases caused by silica dust will affect workers and others long after the initial exposure, resulting in large numbers of workers comp claims and mass torts, similar to those brought about by asbestos. (Read more about asbestos litigation.)

No Cure

Silica-related lung disease is incurable and can be fatal. In 2011-12, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied airborne silica at 11 fracking sites and found that workers’ exposure exceeded the NIOSH criteria at every one of them.

OSHA issued a Hazard Alert for all workers exposed to silica during the fracking process, noting that breathing silica can cause a number of health problems:

  • Silicosis, a lung disease where trapped silica particles cause inflammation, scarring and breathing difficulties
  • Lung cancer
  • Tuberculosis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Autoimmune diseases.

Other sources have linked silica dust to emphysema, bronchitis, anemia, hyperthyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, and heart problems.

fracking-silica

The Danger Is Regulated, Right? Wrong.

Although silica exposure is a well-known danger for miners and construction workers, there is no federal air quality standard for silica outside the workplace, leaving residents near frac sand mines, processing operations and truck routes at risk, especially children, older adults and those who have respiratory diseases.

Six states — California, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, Vermont and New York — developed their own standards, but an analysis by the Environmental Working Group concluded that four of the six state guidelines were insufficient to protect children and other vulnerable segments of the population.

The Health Problems are Just Starting to Surface

It may take many years for the symptoms of silicosis to appear but much less time for other health problems to surface. Victoria Trinko, a farmer from Chippewa County, Wisconsin, described her experience in a statement to the Environmental Working Group:

“I am a retired speech clinician raising beef cattle on the farm my father bought in 1936… The third sand company in the Town of Cooks Valley began construction and operation in the spring of 2011 and is located within 1/2 mile northwest of my farm… [That summer and fall] I made comments at the town meetings about the dust billowing from the Chippewa Sands mine site… I could feel dust clinging to my face and gritty particles in my teeth… In April of 2012, within 9 months of the construction of this silica sand mine, I developed an intermittent sore throat and raspy voice… I was diagnosed with asthma due to my environment and use an inhalant and nasal spray twice a day to alleviate my breathing symptoms… I have not opened my windows since the fall of 2012… I continue to wear a mask while outside for any length of time, especially if the wind is out of the northwest and I am close to the road where trucks are hauling silica sand at an estimable rate of one truck every 3 minutes or less from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, 5-6 days per week.”

In April 2014, the first fracking trial in the U.S. resulted in a $3 million verdict for a Texas family sickened by toxic chemicals used in wells near their home. While it was the first such trial, it won’t be the last. And it’s likely that victims of businesses supporting the fracking industry, e.g., silica mining operations, will also be held to account for the harm done to area residents.

Concerned? Talk With Us to Find Out More.

If you have questions about silicosis or other health problems that could be due to breathing silica particles mined for hydraulic fracturing, call the Louthian Law Firm in Richland County, South Carolina, at (803) 454-1200.

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