Fracking Chemicals in Our Food Supply

How gas drilling is threatening small farms by contaminating livestock and crops with fracking chemicals.

Gas drill in a field

Unlike other heavy industry, gas drilling facilities and fracking chemicals can be found in cornfields or near sources of water for cattle and people.

Photo by Fotolia/bizoo_n

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The Real Cost of Fracking, by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald (Beacon Press, 2014), pulls back the curtain on how fracking chemicals endanger the environment and harm people, pets and livestock. The following excerpt from Chapter 5, “Fracking, Farming, and Our Food Supply,” examines how local farms are being affected by nearby gas drilling operations.

Sometimes, when we go to the grocery store, we see produce, meat, fish, or dairy products labeled as “local,” with or without the name of the individual farm on the label. But in the vast majority of cases, we really don’t know where the products were produced—all we know is that they originated on a farm. If we don’t know where they came from, how can we be sure our food and water are safe, given that the food could have been produced—or in the case of water, collected—in an area undergoing intensive drilling operations? On the one hand, gas drilling is similar to other heavy industry in that it has the potential to pollute air and water. However, a factory is typically not located in the middle of a cornfield or within a few feet of a pond that is the source of water for a beef cattle herd or a spring that provides drinking water for a community. But gas wells, compressor stations, processing plants, condensate tanks, and wastewater impoundments are intermingled with food production. We have seen condensate tanks venting volatile organics in a corn field, a wastewater impoundment adjacent to a field of squash, cows grazing near drilling rigs, and deer walking across drilling pads. The only honest answer to the question of whether our food and water are safe from this process is that we really don’t know.

In cases of illegal dumping or leakage, the effects are catastrophic and the crops are not viable. In a large cornfield with a condensate tank at one edge, the risk may be minimal outside a small radius around the tank, but the same might not be said for a large processing facility that releases massive quantities of toxic substances into the air. Another potential for food contamination comes from practices known euphemistically as land farming, land treatment, and land spreading—the disposal of drilling waste (drill cuttings, muds, or fluids) or wastewater on farmland that depends on soil microbes to degrade the hydrocarbons. Land farming involves multiple applications of drilling waste or wastewater to farmland, whereas land spreading and land treatment refer to a onetime application. In addition to the many types of toxic chemicals that are released from the shale during drilling and hydraulic fracturing, both drilling waste and wastewater contain radioactive compounds, mostly in the form of radium-226 and radium-228.While both are hazardous substances, radium-226 is of particular concern because it can remain in the environment for thousands of years (its half-life is approximately sixteen hundred years). The states and countries allowing land farming, land treatment, and land spreading have different regulations, and the impact on agriculture has not been extensively studied. In lieu of definitive answers, some producers are rejecting milk from dairies engaged inland farming because of the high cost of testing for contaminants.

With crops raised for human or animal consumption, if the effects do not kill the plants or significantly stunt their growth, then we may never know the impact on our food supply. Currently, you’re unlikely to find grocery-store vegetables that have been significantly contaminated due to gas drilling, if for no other reason than the vast areas of production relative to the current footprint of gas drilling in most regions of the nation. But we have visited parts of Bradford and Washington Counties in Pennsylvania that are being intensively drilled; in some cases, the footprint of drilling approaches that of farmland. Consequently, the possible effects on farmland can only grow because the number of wells drilled as of 2013 was only a small fraction of the wells planned, even in areas that are in the middle of the shale gas boom like the one in Pennsylvania. By some estimates, up to 10 percent of US land is leased for drilling, exceeding the land mass used for growing corn and wheat.

But we may never know the effects of drilling on vegetable crops, since these foods are almost never tested for chemical contaminants. In fact it is not generally in the farmer’s interest to test for chemical contamination. For example, since arsenic was detected in rice products in California, some producers have been admirably open and honest about the contamination and their attempts to solve the problems. Lundberg Farms, for instance, has tested for, and published the levels of, arsenic in its rice. However, the full extent of the problem is not clear. As industrial processes such as oil and gas drilling begin to take up more and more land adjacent to acres in production, more consideration must be given to the testing of these crops.

Fracking Chemicals and Livestock

If we consider food animals, the picture changes, but not by much. Cattle can be exposed through surface spills of fracturing and drilling fluids, and wastewater, and also by contaminated water, soil, and feed. But air exposure can also be a problem, especially in farms located downwind of wastewater impoundments, condensate tanks, compressor stations, and processing plants. Air exposure may even be the leading pathway in areas such as North Dakota, where oil is being extracted unconventionally and where the gas, uncollected, is either flared or vented. A particularly well-documented case of the death of two baby goats and six baby chicks on an organic goat farm illustrates the acute problems that may occur. In this case, extensive air testing demonstrated elevated levels of a range of volatile organic compounds. In the case of beef herds, the animals typically go to slaughter with no chemical testing. Even testing for E. coli in ground meat is typically done after meat from many sources is mixed, making it impossible to track the source of contamination. In dairy herds, the milk is collected and mixed with milk from many other farms—also a practice that confounds the ability to isolate the source of a potential problem.

We do know a bit more about the fate of herds with documented exposure to the products of the gas drilling industry. The most dramatic case was the death of seventeen cows in Louisiana after hydraulic fracturing fluid leaked into the pasture. These previously healthy cows died within an hour, and the lesions found on necropsy suggested exposure to toxicants. Interestingly, quaternary ammonium compounds, found in the hydraulic fracturing in this case, have been described as producing similar lesions. Fortunately, these cows never made it to market; nor was their flesh rendered and sold as feed for other animals.

There are other cases, particularly wastewater impoundments that have leaked onto the pasture or into adjacent ponds used to provide drinking water for the herd. In these instances, death was not immediate, but reproductive problems were almost uniformly seen. Both beef and dairy cows typically produce one offspring per year, and the loss of production is a significant hit to a farmer’s income. We have seen herds fail to produce offspring after exposure to drilling fluids and wastewater. While this is not proof that the drilling fluids or the wastewater is the cause of reproductive failure, carefully controlled laboratory studies on a herd of beef cattle are not particularly easy. But farmers inadvertently set up experiments by splitting the herd into different pastures. We have several cases where part of the herd that was exposed to drilling wastewater experienced reproductive and other health problems while the unexposed part of the herd with a different source of drinking water had no changes in health. These cases provide stronger evidence that the wastewater could have caused the problem.

We are, however, left with many of the same problems that we discussed in the previous section, that is, it was difficult to draw a direct link between water contamination and the health of humans and companion animals. But when dealing with farm animals, we sometimes have an exposure pathway—for example, documentation that cattle drank water contaminated by drilling wastes. The chemicals involved are far more of a problem than in contaminated well water, because the animals may be directly exposed to wastewater or hydraulic fracturing fluid whereas the contaminants in well water are diluted when such fluids leak into a freshwater aquifer. Even if all of the components of hydraulic fracturing fluid were known, the culprit or culprits may be chemicals or even bacteria extracted from the shale layers themselves or chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid that have undergone chemical reactions deep below the ground. Furthermore, it is notoriously difficult to trace the origin of a reproductive problem. Chemicals that work on hormonal systems can do so at very low concentrations, lower than the concentrations considered safe in drinking water (MCLs) and lower than detection levels in chemical tests. Without knowing what to search for and knowing that these chemicals may be present at low levels make the problem enormously difficult and expensive to solve— certainly beyond the resources of a typical farmer. So sometimes the best we can do is study the split-herd incidents described above.

For all these reasons, we know of few cases (other than the aforementioned incident when cows were exposed to hydraulic fracturing fluid) where careful testing has been done on cattle that have been exposed to drilling contaminants. But consider the motivation for testing. No farmer wants her farm to be thought of as the one that is raising cattle using contaminated water—an understandable attitude. Perhaps it is better just to move on and hope the problem goes away next year. This approach may sound somewhat lackadaisical, and it does not help those of us studying these problems, but it may actually be a reasonable strategy for the farmer. For the most part, chemical toxicants have a measurable lifetime in the cow’s body, and if you wait long enough, they will all be excreted, with the possible exception of the metals strontium and radium-226, both having a long half-life in bone tissue. So if the cows are not sent to the slaughterhouse or the renderer and do reproduce the next year, perhaps all is well. With any luck, the problem will go away and subsequent generations will not be exposed to any toxic chemicals.


Excerpted from The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, (Beacon Press, 2014). Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.