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Health Consequences of Energy Choices: Risks from Frac Sand Mining for Oil and Gas Extraction. Crispin Pierce, Ph.D. MREA Energy Fair, June 19, 2010. UW-Eau Claire Environmental Public Health. Our Outstanding Students. Outline.

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health consequences of energy choices risks from frac sand mining for oil and gas extraction

Health Consequences of Energy Choices: Risks from Frac Sand Mining for Oil and Gas Extraction

Crispin Pierce, Ph.D.

MREA Energy Fair, June 19, 2010


The Use of Fracturing (“Frac”) Sand for Oil And Natural Gas Extraction.

Wisconsin Locations of Current and Proposed Frac Sand Mines and Processing Plants.

Health Effects Associated with Sand Mining and Processing.

Comparison of Oil/Gas Health Risks to Those from Other Sources of Energy


frac sand use
Frac Sand Use

"Fracturing" (frac) sand is used in the extraction of gas and oil from shale formations.

The sand, along with water and chemicals, is injected under high pressure to fracture the shale for extraction.

Wisconsin has highly-prized sand for this purpose, with a high content of crystalline silica.

industrial sand plants in wisconsin
Industrial Sand Plants in Wisconsin

Existing: Maiden Rock, Taylor, Portage, Fairwater, Menomonie

Proposed or in construction: Chippewa Falls, Marshfield, Preston/Blair

Discussion Stage: Town of Arland, Town of Almena

health effects
Health Effects

FOCUS: Airborne pollutants that can be inhaled.

Waterborne pollutants that can be ingested.

Noise pollution that can be heard.

Light pollution that can be seen.

Truck traffic that affects rural road safety.

estimating health risk is complex
Estimating Health Risk is Complex
  • Many factors contribute to the potential health risks from an industrial operation:
    • The type and rates of chemicals being emitted to the air, water, and soil.
    • The degree of contact between these chemicals and the public.
    • The way that these chemicals cause short-term and long-term damage to people.
chemicals of concern particulate matter pm
Chemicals of Concern: Particulate Matter (PM)

Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing, for example;

Decreased lung function;

Aggravated asthma;

Development of chronic bronchitis;

Irregular heartbeat;

Nonfatal heart attacks; and

Premature death in people with heart or lung disease.


The mining and processing activities generate PM through mining, blasting, transporting, processing, and storing the “frac sand” and “waste sand” in large piles.

The “waste sand” has more of the very small “fines” and so is more dangerous.

Diesel trucks and trains emit small particles that also cause cancer.


Silicosis –a fibrosis (scarring) of the lungs. Silicosis is progressive and leads to disability and death.

About 200 people in the US will die this year due to workplace exposure to silica (NIOSH 2008).

Many more will die with silicosis as a contributing factor.

Silicosis: Crude mortality rates by state, U.S. residents age 15 and over, 1991-1992.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics multiple cause of death data. Population estimates from U.S. Bureau of the Census.

mechanism of injury
Mechanism of Injury
  • Like asbestos, it is the size and shape of the silica particles that make them so dangerous.
  • The most dangerous size particles are called PM2.5 which are 2.5 micrometers (µm) in diameter or smaller.
  • These particles go into the deepest part of the lung (alveoli) and cause inflammation, silicosis, and lung cancer.
cancer risk
Cancer Risk
  • Lung Cancer – Crystalline silica (quartz) inhaled is classified as a carcinogen. The following agencies have classified crystalline silica as a human carcinogen:
    • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
    • National Toxicology Program
    • California Proposition 65
    • American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
    • Occupational Safety and Health Administration - Potential Cancer Hazard
    • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – Potential Cancer Hazard
other health effects
Other Health Effects

Tuberculosis – Silicosis increases the risk of tuberculosis.

Autoimmune and Chronic Kidney Disease – Some studies show excess numbers of cases of scleroderma, connective tissue disorders, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney diseases and end-stage kidney disease.

Non-Malignant Respiratory Diseases (other than Silicosis) – Some studies show an increased incidence in chronic bronchitis and emphysema in workers.

sand risk myths
Sand Risk Myths

“Silica is in all agricultural soils, so it can’t be risky.”

Silica is a natural component of soils. However, the “freshly-fractured” silica from mining and processing operations appears to be about 2-5 times more toxic than the “weathered” silica from soils .


“The particulates from sand are just like wood smoke, nothing to be concerned about.”

The specific size and shape of crystalline silica particles make them especially dangerous (like asbestos).


“It’s just like beach sand.”

Most of the dangerous crystalline silica is in the cement that holds the sand grains together in the sandstone formation.

Blasting and digging in this formation, as well as transporting, crushing, sifting and pouring of the sand grains create airborne crystalline silica.

Beach sand is wet – it takes new high-capacity wells to control the many sources of dry sand/silica dust.


Dust emissions for many processes are not considered by the DNR. These include,

    • the large surge pile of sand;
    • frac and waste sand movement between operations; and
    • emissions from the road.
  • These emissions would include crystalline silica, a known human carcinogen.
dnr approach to silica
DNR Approach to Silica

The Department of Natural Resources admits that crystalline silica is a human carcinogen, but is not regulating it as a hazardous air pollutant (NR 445). DNR was required to provide a report by July 1, 2006 but has not yet done so. A study has now begun.


There are few silica exposure limits for the general public. However, the State of California has adopted a level of 3 ug/m3 as safe.

The DNR estimated a maximum concentration of silica from the Chippewa Falls plant of 4 ug/m3 (even without considering “fugitive” dust). However, DNR staff took the position that silica cannot be regulated at this time.


The Trempealeau County Environment and Land Committee set a “goal” of 30 ug/m3 PM10 for the Preston/Blair sand plant.

additional concerns
Additional Concerns

Diesel exhaust from truck traffic is carcinogenic.

Sensitive receptors (children, elderly, those living in health care facilities) should be considered.

  • Prior to any permit issuance, perform a risk assessment to include the following:
    • Estimate exposure to crystalline silica and compare this to a risk standard, such as the California OEHHA 3 ug/m3 limit.
    • Include all dust (PM) emissions.
    • Include diesel truck and train emissions.
    • Consider sensitive groups who could be affected.
contact information
Contact Information

Crispin H. Pierce, Ph.D.

Associate Professor / Program Director

Department of Public Health Professions

244 Nursing

University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004

(715) 836-5589

questions and discussion
Questions and Discussion