Most people have heard the term “fracking”, but don’t really know what that means. Even fewer people realize the dangers associated with fracking, including environmental and health hazards. Health hazards like fracking sand silicosis are certainly cause for concern.
What is Fracking Sand Silicosis?
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling particles of silica dust. When the particles enter the lungs, they settle in the tiny corners and spaces around the soft tissue. Over time, nodules form, inflammation occurs and fluid can build up. The lungs then become scarred, which affects breathing.
The symptoms of silicosis may develop within weeks of exposure, or may take years to develop. When symptoms develop often depends on the concentration of exposure, how long you were exposed, and how your body reacts to the particles. Some of the common symptoms of silicosis include:
- Difficulty Breathing
- Chest Pain
- Chronic Cough
- Shortness of Breath
These symptoms can be treated using a variety of treatment methods, but unfortunately, there is no cure for silicosis.
The Link Between Fracking and Silicosis
In the past decade, the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has increased dramatically. Primarily used in the oil and gas industry, fracking is the process of pumping water and sand into a fracture created by workers drilling into rock. The high pressure water and sand hold the crack open, which allows oil and gas to be released.
The dangers of fracking are well documented. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has battled with employers over the dangers of pollutants and toxins like crystalline silica dust. Not only are workers at risk, but so are residents of nearby communities.
In 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a study showing that fracking operations in five states were exposing workers to unacceptable amounts of silica dust. In fact, 79 percent of the samples taken showed silica dust levels higher than the exposure limits. Some samples were so concentrated that even respirators did not offer adequate protection.
Unfortunately, there is no way to link the exposure to a number of workers because silicosis may not present symptoms for years or even decades after exposure.
Who is at Risk for Fracking Silicosis?
Crystalline silica is present in most rocks, dirt and sand. Silica dust refers to the tiny particles of silica that become airborne during mining operations. Silica dust particles are generally around a few microns in diameter, and often cannot be seen with the eye. When these particles are breathed in, workers are put at risk for developing fracking sand silicosis.
In fracking operations, the sand used contains up to 99 percent silica. This sand passes through several processes, which expose workers to particles at several stages. Workers who may be at risk for fracking silicosis include:
- Those who load or unload sand.
- Workers who work directly in the mines.
- Contractors who use tanker trucks to wash down dust.
- Truck drivers transporting sand during refilling operations.
- Workers who are in the vicinity when sand is ejected, blended, or released from trucks, hoppers, or sand movers.
Basically, anyone who works around dust from rocks, dirt or sand is at risk for developing silicosis. Workers in fracking operations, mining, sandblasting and the maritime industry are among those who should be cautious about their health.
Can Fracking Sand Silicosis be Prevented?
Silicosis is preventable if employers and workers follow OSHA and NIOSH guidelines. Essentially, if workers do not breathe in silica dust, they are not at risk for silicosis. To prevent fracking sand silicosis, workers can do the following to prevent exposure:
- Wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including an appropriate respirator
- Use ventilation machines when working in confined or enclosed spaces
- Use water to wash down work areas and keep dust to a minimum
- Change clothes before you leave work, since dust can transfer to your car or home
Following these guidelines can help you reduce the chances of exposure to harmful silica dust. Remember, however, that you may be inhale silica dust without even realizing it. If you develop the symptoms of silicosis and have worked in a fracking operation, talk to your doctor.