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Onshore Fracking Chemicals Benign, Say Colorado Researchers

Based on samplings of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluids used in five states, a first-of-its-kind analysis by Colorado researchers at two universities found the chemicals used at wellsites are no more harmful than what's found in common household products.

The work by the University of Colorado (CU-Boulder) Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry (LEMS) researchers and Colorado State University (CSU) is published in Analytical Chemistry. Researchers used samples from Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. Results showed that the chemicals found in fluid samples were also commonly found in everyday products from toothpaste to laxatives to detergent to ice cream.

"We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home," said CU-Boulder's Michael Thurman, lead co-author. The samples found surfactant chemicals, such as detergents, wetting agents and emulsifiers. Authors also included LEMS chief scientist Emma Ferrer and CSU's Jens Blotevogel and Thomas Borch.

They cautioned that their results may not be applicable to all wells. Individual well operators use unique fracking fluid mixtures that may be modified depending on the underlying geology.

Researchers noted that recent state and federal disclosure requirements only require operators to list typically used broad chemical categories. However, the results "are important not only because they give a picture of the possible toxicity of the fluid but because a detailed list of the ingredients can be used as a 'fingerprint' to trace whether suspected contamination of water supplies actually originated from a fracking operation," Ferrer said. She pointed to the laboratory's unique instrumentation for ion chemistry.

The study concluded that generally, water pollution from surfactants in fracking fluid "may not be as big a concern as previously though," but several issues need further research, including air pollution, antimicrobial biocides used in fluids, wastewater disposal triggering earthquakes, and the large amounts of water used.

"What we have learned in this piece of work is that the really toxic surfactants aren't being used in the wells we have tested," Thurman said.

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association hailed the work.  "We welcome and embrace sound science, thorough studies and continued transparency," said spokesman Doug Flanders. "This should again give comfort that oil and gas development is being conducted responsibly" and "another example of how Colorado's tough regulations on oil and gas development are working."

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