Unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD, or “fracking”) has the potential to impact water quality at many stages of the process. If your water comes from a private well, you should be particularly aware of water quality issues. Private well water quality is not regulated in the United States, and well owners are responsible for performing their own monitoring. Regular monitoring is particularly important if you live within three miles of UOGD activities.
Drilling operations near homes. Photo courtesy of Bob Donnan.
Oil and gas well drilling activity, if properly conducted, does not necessarily contaminate groundwater. While properly drilled gas wells should keep contaminants from seeping into underground aquifers, some wells fail to do so, allowing methane and other chemicals to reach drinking water supplies. Unpredictable chemical releases from poorly managed drill sites, leaky wastewater pits, accidental spills, and truck accidents that occur above ground can also affect the quality of your well water.
Additionally, some of the fluids pumped into the ground during the gas extraction process flow back to the surface. This wastewater is called "flowback" and can be contaminated with industrial and naturally occurring toxic substances. Some of the contaminants can alter the taste, odor, or clarity of well water while others are difficult to detect.
Municipal water supplies may also be at risk from UOGD due to surface water discharges, insufficient treatment of contaminated wastewater, and byproducts formed at drinking water treatment facilities by the reaction between hydraulic fracturing contaminants and disinfectants. More study into this issue is needed, and the EPA is currently investigating the impacts of UOGD on public water supplies.
How Water Quality Affects You
Exposure to chemicals used in unconventional oil and gas drilling or “fracking” can occur in several ways: ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, absorbing chemicals through direct skin contact, or breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in pits or tanks.
According to The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, an examination of the toxicity of 353 chemicals used in fracking found that many are dangerous to human health:
- 25% can cause cancer and mutations.
- 37% affect the endocrine system.
- 40 – 50% affect the brain, kidneys, and nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems.
- More than 75% affect the skin, eyes or other sensory organs, and the respiratory and/or gastrointestinal systems.
Specific chemicals and their potential health risks are detailed in the tables below:
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) recommends that all residents using private wells test their water once per year for the presence of total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, testing for other naturally occurring contaminants such as methane, radon, and arsenic may also be advisable. (If you live outside of Pennsylvania, please click here to find your local environmental regulatory body and check the guidelines in your area.)
The video below provides general information and recommendations about water monitoring, though your particular situation may call for more extensive testing:
Source: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
Water Monitoring Near UOGD (“fracking”) Sites
If your private water well is within 3 miles of an unconventional gas and oil development (“fracking”) site, EHP recommends additional testing and monitoring:
1) If possible, obtain a baseline test before drilling activity starts for the following contaminants. Although these tests are expensive, we encourage you to test for as many as possible.
- oil and grease
2) Perform targeted water tests every 6 months during UOGD activities for the contaminants listed below. Comparing these results to the baseline results can alert you to dangerous changes in your water quality.
- oil and grease
3) Monitor your water on a weekly basis for pH and conductivity in between targeted tests. The pH test measures the acidity level in water; conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to conduct electrical current. Both of these inexpensive tests are sensitive to changes in water quality and can alert you to the presence of water contaminants. Further testing should be done if either test reports abnormal readings.
(Please note that pH and conductivity tests may not be effective for all possible contaminants and will not identify which chemicals caused the change. This is why we recommend performing the targeted tests listed in #2 every six months.)
Even if you are not testing your water using the recommendations above, the following signs may point to contamination:
- Changes in the taste, smell, or appearance of your water.
- Foaming, bubbling, or spurting faucets.
- Gritty, sandy material in your water.
- Salty or metallic-tasting water.
- Skin burns or rashes after bathing.
EHP recommends that you keep a record of monitoring results and keep copies of all tests performed. Any notes on perceived changes in water quality (e.g., taste, smell, clarity) and any health issues should also be recorded.
While homeowners can perform some water testing themselves, many tests require the use of a state-certified laboratory. For example, you can use inexpensive test strips to easily monitor pH levels on your own, and conductivity testing can be done at home using an inexpensive monitoring device.
On the other hand, testing for contaminants like chloride, VOCs, and others mentioned above, must be performed by a lab. Keep in mind that testing water through a lab can be expensive. Baseline tests alone can cost anywhere from $300 to over $1,000 for a larger range of tests. A list of state-certified water testing labs for Pennsylvania can be found here.
Free Service: CATTfish Water Quality Monitor! Another option for water monitoring in your home is the CATTfish Water Quality Monitor, an easy to use device that fits in your toilet tank and provides ongoing water quality measurements from private wells or public water sources. CATTfish measures the conductivity of your water and can alert you to the presence of contaminants.
For residents using well water and living within a 3 mile radius of UOGD (“fracking”) sites, EHP provides CATTfish Water Monitors free of charge for 1-2 months and provides a follow up report with results and recommendations within 3 weeks. You can also purchase your own CATTfish monitor. See how the CATTfish works here or read a more detailed report here. For additional information about obtaining a monitor from EHP, contact Ryan Grode, Environmental Health Educator, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call our office at 724.260.5504.
What To Do If Your Water Is Contaminated
Different levels of contamination call for different plans of action. At minimum, if testing shows that your well is contaminated, do not drink the water and notify the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (or your local agency if outside of PA).
If more serious contamination is found, residents should also limit bathing and cooking with their well water, ventilate rooms where water is used (for example, laundry and bathrooms), and treat the water system.
Other Steps You Can Take
Concerned about your water quality? There are many steps you can take to limit potential health problems:
- Contact EHP for help. Our Family Nurse Practitioner serves the needs of both adults and children whose health may be affected by UOGD (“fracking”). She is available by appointment for both home and office visits and makes referrals to appropriate health specialists on an as needed basis. Please click on our Health Issues section for more information.
- Drink bottled water. If you are concerned about your water quality, EHP recommends you stop drinking and cooking with it.
- Filter your water. There are many options for home water filters, but no filter will remove all possible contaminants. At a minimum, you can filter your tap water for drinking and cooking with a filtered water pitcher, available at many stores or online. Other devices attach to faucets, fit under the kitchen sinks, or even filter all household water. The EPA and EWG provide information on different types of filters.
- Ventilate rooms where you are using water. Be sure your bathroom is effectively vented with an exhaust fan to pull steam and air out while the water is running, and afterwards until all water vapor is out of the air. If possible, vent the air in your laundry area as well.
- Stay informed. Pennsylvania residents are encouraged to sign up with the PA DEP e-notice program, which will alert you when drilling permits have been issued in your area so you will know which activities are taking place near your home.
Want to Learn More?
- Earthworks: Hydraulic Fracturing 101
- EPA: Private Drinking Water Wells
- PADEP: My Water
- Penn State Extension: Marcellus Shale Water Quality
- Penn State Extension: General Testing and Treatment
- Penn State Extension: Testing Drinking Water Supplies Near Gas Drilling
- PSR: Hydraulic Fracturing and Your Health: Water Contamination