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Editor’s note: This story is a follow-up to our recent report that found PFAS in a private well near fracking in Pennsylvania.
PITTSBURGH—In June, Colorado became the first state to ban the use of PFAS during oil and gas extraction — and now, in light of recent research finding the potential for widespread contamination, some are calling for a similar ban in Pennsylvania.
Last year it was revealed that PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of more than 9,000 chemicals, have been used in oil and gas wells for decades. The chemicals, which are water- and grease-repellent, are sometimes used in fracking fluid to make the chemical mixture more stable and efficient in flushing oil and gas out of the ground at high pressure. PFAS may also be used during initial drilling and other phases of oil and gas extraction — not just fracking.
That’s about to change in Colorado: A new bill restricts PFAS in products like carpets and furniture, fabric treatments, cosmetics, food packaging and children’s products; and bars the use of PFAS in any type of oil and gas extraction, including fracking. The law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
With a separate, related bill, Colorado also became the first state to require oil and gas companies to publicly disclose the complete list of chemicals used “downhole” for all types of wells, and to certify that no PFAS were used during drilling or extraction.
Downhole chemicals include those used during drilling and other phases of operations. Most public disclosure laws in other states focus mainly on chemicals used in fracking wells, and most only require disclosure of chemicals used during extraction, ignoring the chemicals used during drilling or other operations.
“Prior to this legislation, there was a lot of secrecy involved in the chemicals being used downhole in oil and gas production operations,” Ramesh Bhatt, who advocated for the bill’s passage as chair of the conservation committee of the Colorado Sierra Club, told EHN.
Some scientists and health advocates think other states with a heavy oil and gas industry presence, including Pennsylvania, should do the same.
“When you’re talking about chemicals as toxic and persistent as PFAS, it’s extraordinarily risky to allow them in oil and gas extraction,” Dusty Horwitt, an environmental health consultant who testified before Colorado lawmakers considering the drilling disclosure law, told EHN.
Earlier this year, a group of researchers tested Washington County, Pennsylvania, resident Bryan Latkanich’s water for PFAS and detected seven of the chemicals, including several at levels well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended thresholds. Latkanich formerly had two fracking wells drilled about 400 feet from his home.
Carla Ng, a researcher who studies PFAS at the University of Pittsburgh and conducted the tests that found PFAS in Latkanich’s water, told EHN, “It’s very difficult to control where those chemicals go when drillers are pushing fluid into the Earth’s subsurface. Because of how harmful and persistent PFAS are, they should not be used in cases where their spread cannot be controlled.”
Critical gaps in state laws
A new Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which is expected to create additional demand for fracking wells.
Credit: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2021
The use of PFAS in oil and gas wells is likely creating an under-appreciated source of PFAS contamination, adding to Americans’ exposure to these harmful chemicals through food, personal care products and drinking water. But lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess how widespread the problem is.
“It’s impossible to know at this point,” said Horwitt, who also consults for the environmental health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Horwitt was lead author on a report published this month that found that in 16 leading oil- and gas-producing states, manufacturers of the chemical mixtures used in oil and gas extraction are generally not required to disclose complete lists of the substances they use.
The report also found that a number of states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that waive liability for oil and gas companies that don’t disclose complete lists of ingredients to regulators — as they’re required to by law — if they never received complete lists from chemical manufacturers.
Pennsylvania’s law also says chemical manufacturers can’t be held responsible for failing to disclose complete lists of ingredients in these products.
“So they’re all just off the hook,” Horwitt said.
The potential use of PFAS during drilling and other downhole operations is especially troubling, Horwitt said, because operators typically bore straight through groundwater, long before any casing or cement has been added to seal it off.
Further complicating things, some states, including Pennsylvania, have different disclosure requirements for conventional and unconventional wells. Operators of fracking wells have to publicly disclose chemicals used in their wells (minus any “trade secrets”), but for conventional wells, the public can only access that information through requests to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Colorado closes the gaps
\u201cGreat News! I'm thrilled to share that the PFAs Bill HB22-1345 was signed into law today by @GovofCO. Thank you @GovofCO. A Big Thank You to @Cutter4Colorado for her leadership. Also, Thanks to Senate sponsors @PeteLeeColorado @SenadoraJulie #ClimateAction #BanPFAs #ClimateAction\u201d— Madhvi4EcoEthics (@Madhvi4EcoEthics) 1654275012
In recent years, Colorado has enacted some of the most health-protective oil and gas regulations in the country. The two new PFAS bills will further advance those protections.
“We have the most advanced timeline for banning these chemicals,” Josh Kuhn, the water policy manager for Conservation Colorado, one of the organizations that advocated for the legislation, told EHN. “This is a national leading policy.”
“When all of our aquifers are polluted, where will we get our drinking water from?” Chittoor asked. “When our waterways like ponds, lakes, rivers are polluted, where will the fish live? What water will the animals drink? What water will the farmers use to grow our crops?”
Cutter, a Democrat, was moved by Chittoor’s testimony and started working with groups like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and Conservation Colorado to craft the PFAS bill.
Many other states have passed bills restricting the use of PFAS in certain products, but none have addressed the use of PFAS by the oil and gas industry.
Kuhn said the effort to include the oil and gas industry in the state’s PFAS ban started after Physicians for Social Responsibility published a report in January 2022 that found PFAS were used in at least 10 Colorado counties. A subsequent analysis by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found that Colorado had the most potentially PFAS-contaminated sites of any state, 86% of which were associated with the oil and gas industry.
Mary Bradford, a Republican member of the Colorado state House who cosponsored Colorado’s main PFAS bill, said she was mainly concerned about the health effects of PFAS on children and in consumer products.
“Now that we believe that PFAS is a potential health risk, we could be very surprised about how many products intentionally contain the PFAS compounds,” she said in a statement. Bradford’s district has experienced PFAS contamination of drinking water and well-documented PFAS exposures in people from a nearby military base.
“Chemicals that can harm people’s health are not just a one party issue,” Kuhn said.
While the bill banning PFAS didn’t have unanimous support, Kuhn said, they got more pushback against the consumer products portions of the bill than the oil and gas portion. The advocates and legislators working to get the bill passed talked directly with representatives from the oil and gas industry, which led to provisions that would allow for the use of PFAS in certain parts of oil and gas operations where they’re essential and good alternatives don’t exist — in gaskets and other pieces of equipment, for example.
Advocates like Kuhn and his colleagues also partnered with water utilities, which helped build bipartisan support.
“Water utilities on the receiving end of polluted water face significant challenges when it comes to removing PFAS,” Kuhn said.
Physicians for Social Responsibility’s reports cited evidence that PFAS may be used during the drilling phase for fracking and other types of oil and gas wells, but because no states currently require public disclosure of the chemicals used during drilling (as opposed to chemicals used during extraction), it’s impossible to know how common the practice is.
Colorado has found a solution to that with the separate bill that requires disclosure of downhole chemicals and requires that both operators and chemical manufacturers certify that no PFAS have been used.
“The first bill bans the use of PFAS by the oil and gas industry, and the second bill creates accountability,” Kuhn said.
There are a number of downhole operations, including drilling, that are different from what’s technically called fracking, Bhatt, with the Sierra Club, explained. Those chemicals are overlooked in most state laws.
Initially, the bill required complete disclosure of the ingredients used and their proportions, but after pushback from the industry related to revealing trade secrets, it was amended to require a complete list of individual chemicals used in oil and gas operations, but not their proportions or the exact mixtures used in specific products.
“You have to weigh the importance of protecting trade secrets against the importance of protecting health and the environment,” Bhatt said, “but we think this was a good compromise.”
Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and the Colorado Oil and Gas Institute responded to the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility on the use of PFAS in oil and gas extraction last year, saying they agreed that PFAS shouldn’t be intentionally used in fracking fluid, and contesting the idea that trade secrets provisions could be hiding extensive PFAS use.
The American Petroleum Institute has also said that PFAS use in oil and gas wells is limited and that the trade group will continue to review available data to protect health and safety.
Possibilities for Pennsylvania
Several advocacy groups, including PennFuture, the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Health Project, have called for action on the issue of potential PFAS contamination from the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania.
Kuhn and Bhatt said they haven’t heard much from lawmakers or advocates in Pennsylvania or other states about crafting similar legislation yet, but that they’d be happy to consult about how they’ve successfully regulated PFAS in Colorado. Kuhn suggested reaching out for resources to Safer States, an environmental health advocacy group that tracks legislation related to chemical safety throughout the states..
Kuhn also cautioned that while the bill was being crafted, advocates and lawmakers were pressured by some chemical industry groups to limit the specific PFAS they were restricting, which they did not do, and emphasized that a comprehensive ban on the chemicals is the most protective option.
“In Colorado,” he said, “no longer will any of these ‘forever chemicals’ be inserted into the ground, potentially threatening water supplies needed by both humans and wildlife.”
EHN reporter Kristina Marusic recently discussed the mental health impacts of pollution on an episode of "Mad in America," a podcast about science, psychiatry, and social justice.
Marusic talked about emerging research showing that pollution in air and water can affect our minds and emotions, and that children are especially vulnerable, both while they are young and later in life. It's a topic she covered in depth in her series, "Pollution's mental toll," a collaboration with The Allegheny Front.
"I wasn’t surprised to learn that being worried about pollution or climate change can contribute to anxiety or depression," Marusic said on the episode. "But I was very surprised to learn that pollution can also cause physical changes to our brains that can impact our mental health."
Read the transcript or listen to the full interview here.
Air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, according to a report published today.
This impact on global life expectancy is comparable to the impact of smoking, six times higher than that of HIV/AIDS, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, according to the Air Quality Life Index report, produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
“Air pollution can be difficult to raise the alarm about because it is something we experience every day,” Christa Hasenkopf, director of the Air Quality Life Index program, told EHN. “It can be hard to recognize compared to other threats that pose smaller burdens but are more visible.”
Research has increasingly shown that air pollution, even at very low levels, harms human health. This year the World Health Organization (WHO) lowered its threshold for safe exposure to PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — hundreds of times smaller than a grain of salt) from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Following that change, most of the world — 97.3% of the global population — experiences a level of air pollution exposure that’s considered unsafe.
Sources of PM2.5 pollution include car exhaust, industrial emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. Exposure to PM2.5 pollution is linked to asthma and respiratory disease, heart problems, high blood pressure, cancer, central nervous system disorders like epilepsy and autism, and mental illness.
The new report notes that despite the slowdown of the global economy during the pandemic, the global annual average for PM2.5 pollution stayed largely the same in 2019 and 2020.
The Air Quality Life Index estimated the impacts of 2020 levels of air pollution across the globe relative to a world that met the new WHO threshold. The Index references two studies out of China that found for every additional 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 pollution a person is exposed to, their life expectancy is reduced by 0.64 years, and combined that analysis with global pollution data to estimate the impact of exposure to PM2.5 pollution on life expectancy.
“We made the Index to make the health impacts and costs of air pollution more visible,” Hasenkopf said. “Air pollution is one of the largest public health threats of our time, but it’s highly neglected. The good news is that it’s also entirely solvable if we turn our attention to it.”
Industry, wildfires drive US hotspots for PM2.5
Wildfire near Ukiah, California, in 2018. (Credit: Bob Dass/flickr)
Under the new WHO guidelines, almost all of the United States — 92.8% of the population, up from just 7.6% under the previous threshold — are exposed to unsafe levels of PM2.5 pollution. As a result of the Clean Air Act, overall air pollution levels are significantly better in the U.S. than much of the rest of the world, but in some highly polluted places life expectancy is lower than in others.
In Pittsburgh, for example, none of the surrounding county’s seven air monitors have ever detected an annual average for PM2.5 below the WHO’s new threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2020, the air monitor in one of the region’s most polluted neighborhoods showed an annual average of 9.8 micrograms per cubic meter for PM2.5. If levels stayed below the new WHO threshold instead of at that level moving forward, residents would gain six months of average lifespan, according to Hasenkopf. The three-year average for the same monitor from 2017-2019 was 12.4 micrograms per cubic meter. If pollution levels stayed below the new WHO threshold instead of that level, residents would gain about nine months of average lifespan.
In California’s Central Valley, wildfires driven by climate change have caused spikes in air pollution in recent years. In 2020, average pollution concentrations ranged from 13 micrograms per cubic meter in Sierra County to 22.6 in Mariposa County, where residents could gain 1.7 years of life expectancy if PM2.5 stayed below the WHO guideline permanently rather than staying at 2020 levels, according to the report.
Some regions fare worse than others
In some parts of the world, air pollution lowers life expectancy significantly more than the global average.
In South Asia, for example, residents are expected to lose an average of about five years of their lives to air pollution if current levels persist. In regions where PM2.5 pollution is particularly high, the cost is even higher: In Bangladesh residents lose nearly seven years of life to air pollution.
Almost all of Central and West Africa (about 97%) is considered unsafe by the WHO’s new PM2.5 threshold, and in some of the most polluted regions, average life expectancy is reduced by up to five years. This means that air pollution is as much of a health threat as HIV/AIDS and malaria in these areas, and could surpass the impact of those diseases if fossil fuel growth continues at its current pace in these regions. Other sources of PM2.5 contributing to pollution in these regions include waste burning, mining, mineral processing, cement manufacturing, high sulfur content fuel, industrial emissions, oil refineries and the use of diesel generators, according to the report.
Banner photo: Scotland activists gather in 2015 to demand clean air as Edinburgh Air Pollution Zone to be expanded. (Credit: Friends of the Earth Scotland)
This month Colorado became the first state to ban the use of PFAS in the extraction of oil and gas.
While there has been widespread outcry about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in consumer goods — such as stain- and water-resistant clothing, nonstick pots and pans, firefighting foam, carpets and furniture — the oil and gas industry could be a major and under-appreciated source of soil and groundwater contamination.
Last summer an investigation by the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility revealed that the chemicals are often used in the fluids used to extract oil and gas from deep in the ground during fracking. The chemicals, which are extremely water-repellent, are used in fracking fluid to make the chemical mixture more stable and more efficiently flush oil and gas out of the ground at high pressure.
The chemicals have been detected in drinking water across the country, and in a broad range of food items including cow’s milk from small dairy farms, leafy greens and chocolate cake purchased from grocery stores. Plants grown in soil containing PFAS can uptake the chemicals into their plants and roots and make their way into human and animal bodies. PFAS don't break down naturally and are linked to illnesses including cancer, thyroid disease, obesity and ulcerative colitis.
Colorado’s new law passed with bipartisan support, and bars the use of PFAS in fracking fluid starting Jan. 1, 2024.
It also restricts the sale of PFAS in consumer products like carpets and furniture, fabric treatments, cosmetics, food packaging and children’s products, and mandates that the state purchase PFAS-free products.
“This law puts Colorado at the forefront of states taking action to stop the flow of toxic PFAS chemicals,” said Sarah Doll, National Director of Safer States, in a statement. “We anticipate other states to continue this trend.”
PFAS in fracking fluid
Despite widespread use in consumer goods and on military bases, PFAS in fracking has largely flown under the radar.
The report from Physicians for Social Responsibility uncovered PFAS in more than 1,200 fracking wells in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming between 2012 and 2020. The U.S. EPA approved the chemicals for use in fracking in 2011 despite concerns about their toxicity.
It’s likely the chemicals were also used in fracking wells in other states, but in some, like Pennsylvania, oil and gas companies are permitted to keep the list of chemicals used during fracking confidential, preventing a full investigation.
“It’s very disturbing to see the extent to which critical information about these chemicals is shielded from public view,” said Barbara Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Environment & Health Program Director, in a statement. “The lack of transparency about fracking chemicals puts human health at risk.”
A subsequent analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer identified the use of PFAS in at least eight Pennsylvania fracking wells between 2012 and 2014.The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spent more than a year sampling water across the state to test for PFAS, focusing on locations where contamination was likely. The agency did not find widespread contamination, but did not include any sites near fracking wells in its investigation.
Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and the Colorado Oil and Gas Institute responded to the report by Physicians for Social Responsibility last year, saying they agree that PFAS shouldn’t be intentionally used in fracking fluid and that they were not being used in Colorado wells. Even before the PFAS ban, Colorado had some of the most stringent fracking regulations in the country and has required public disclosure of the ingredients in fracking fluid since 2011.
Banner photo: The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Credit: Jesse Paul/flickr)
EHN reporter Kristina Marusic won an award at the 2022 Golden Quill Awards for her reporting on the health impacts of fracking.
The Golden Quills competition, held by the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, honors excellence in print, broadcast, photography, videography and digital journalism in western Pennsylvania and nearby counties in Ohio and West Virginia. This was the 58th year for the annual awards, which were presented at an awards dinner in Pittsburgh on May 24.
Marusic was presented with an award for Excellence in Written Journalism in the Science/Environment category for her four-part series Fractured: The Body Burden of Living Near Fracking, which documented exposure to harmful chemicals in Pennsylvania families living near fracking wells.
In the investigation, Marusic collected air samples, water samples, and urine samples, and found that five families who live near oil and gas wells are exposed to higher-than-average levels of a long list of toxic chemicals used by the industry, prompting a group of more than 30 state lawmakers to call on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to do more to protect Pennsylvanians.
Marusic also won two Golden Quill awards in 2020 for her reporting on air pollution and cancer in western Pennsylvania, including a Best in Show Ray Sprigle Memorial Award.