Frac Sand, Silicosis, and Your Health

You would have needed to spend the last couple of years under a rock to have missed the raging debate over hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Many of us have strong opinions about it. Here in South Carolina, we have no oil and gas reserves, so fracking per se is not going to occur in our state. However, we do have deposits of a natural resource that is essential to the fracking process: crystalline silica, also known as “frac sand.” You can’t frack without it. You also can’t avoid exposure to its hazards if frac sand is mined or in use where you live.

What is Frac Sand?

Frac sand, or crystalline silica, is made of quartz, and is highly durable sand with round grains. Frac sand is not the same kind of sand as that in your child’s sandbox, or that is found on the beach.

Fracking requires water, frac sand, and certain chemicals to fracture the shale and release the gas or oil trapped inside it. The need for frac sand has skyrocketed as fracking has become more widespread. Sand use increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2013 alone, and energy companies used nearly 75 billion pounds of it in 2013. Bryan Shinn, U.S. Silica’s chief executive, has said, “It takes 25 railcars of sand, on average, to frack one well.”

Because of the way well and drilling statistics are reported, it is unknown precisely how many hydraulic fracturing wells exist in the United States, but some estimate the number at over 32,000, with more coming into existence on a regular basis. That’s a lot of sand.

Hazards of Breathing Frac Sand Particles

Both the mining and usage of frac sand release extremely small particles into the air, and breathing the silica particles puts you at risk. This means that anyone who lives near a fracking site or a frac sand mine could be vulnerable.

OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, states that repeated exposure to the silica “dust” can cause a number of health problems, some of which are incurable and fatal:

  • Lung CancerSilicosis
  • Bronchitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Kidney disease
  • Autoimmune diseases.

David Kriebel, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts, warns, “There’s a tendency to say it’s just dust and people have always been exposed to dust. Crystalline silica is an extremely hazardous substance. Every little piece of crystalline silica that reaches the lungs causes scarring.”

Symptoms of Silicosis

One of the most serious dangers of repeated exposure to crystalline silica is silicosis, an irreversible scarring of the lungs that eventually prevents the body from absorbing oxygen. Long a known danger in many varieties of mining operations, silicosis is at minimum disabling, and at worst, fatal.

Silicosis usually takes years to develop, sometimes as many as 20, and is incurable. Symptoms can include:

  • Chest PainShortness of breath, especially following exertion
  • Severe cough
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever.

In addition, silicosis interferes with your body’s ability to fight infections, making you more susceptible to tuberculosis and certain other illnesses.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Silicosis

Usually a doctor will order a chest X-ray and a lung function test to determine whether you have silicosis. As there is no cure, treatments focus on alleviating symptoms, preventing infections, and treating complication from the disease. Along with such treatments, lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, increasing lung capacity with careful exercise, and avoiding crowds and persons with colds or other respiratory infections are usually required.

Acute silicosis can progress to complete respiratory failure. For some people, their only hope becomes a lung or heart-lung transplant.

What is the Frac Sand Danger to Me in South Carolina?

Currently, most frac sand mining is concentrated in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but a report that the Civil Society Institute released in 2014 listed 12 additional states where the special sand can be found. South Carolina is one of them, so it’s possible that frac sand mining operations could begin if fracking continues to increase its demand for sand. It’s worth noting that one of the largest industrial-sand companies already has a sand mining operation near Columbia, South Carolina.

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, contact the Louthian Law Firm at 803-454-1200, or fill out our confidential online form.