What health considerations are there?

Box 8. Focus on Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM)

What is NORM?

Radiation is a particular kind of energy given off by unstable atoms. Our natural surroundings — including air, water, and mineral resources — contain various amounts of radioactive material. Since these radiation-emitting elements have always been a normal part of our environment, they are called naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM.

What is the impact of radiation on humans?

Human beings are exposed to radiation from several sources, including NORM, the sun’s rays, and medical procedures. Low-level exposure is constant and can alter molecules in the human body, but the body generally protects itself from long-term damage with routine repair mechanisms. In contrast, higher levels of exposure can lead to permanent damage and can contribute to the development of cancer and other diseases. 1

What are the recommended threshold levels for radiation exposure?

The EPA has determined that any exposure to radiation carries some risk, and, as exposure doubles, risk doubles. Routes of exposure include inhalation, ingestion, and direct (external) exposure. 2, 3 One threshold for exposure set by the EPA applies to community drinking water systems. 4, 5, 6 Household radon levels and management have also been addressed by the EPA. 7

Why is it relevant to shale development?

Shale and soil particulates at the earth’s surface contain some level of NORM, but generally not in damaging amounts. NORM can be higher, however, in buried shale deposits, especially in the Marcellus Shale of northeast Pennsylvania, with emissions of up to 20 times the amount of radioactivity found in normal background emissions at the earth’s surface. Radioactive materials can also become unusually concentrated in fluids and solids from human activity such as road building, mining, and energy development, forming what is called technologically enhanced radioactive material (TENORM). The processes of drilling and hydraulic fracturing in underground shale basins can thus introduce TENORM into the liquid and solid wastes from the site. Additionally, in the presence of high salt content, radioactive materials can form solids, which accumulate on the inside of pipes and equipment, posing a particular risk for oil and gas workers. 8

Does NORM from shale development pose a risk to nearby communities?

Several recent studies have looked into the question of how much radiation communities may be exposed to during shale exploration and development. A 2012 Wilkes University study of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale basin suggested that improper management of liquid and solid wastes from well sites could potentially compromise drinking water supplies, especially those downstream from water treatment plants that receive shale development wastewater. The researchers concluded that radiation risks from both liquid and solid wastes and from radon may vary by region – and even across drilling sites within a region. 9 Another report from the University of Maryland School of Public Health reached a similar conclusion -  that more information is needed, not just about radiation levels in wastewater and solid waste from shale development sites, but also at water treatment plants and landfills that receive this waste. Ultimately, it is important to examine potentially impacted drinking water for radiation levels. 10

In early 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a report that assessed potential worker and public radiation exposure from shale development in the state. 11 The report concluded that there is little potential risk of radiation exposure to workers and the public from the development and production of natural gas or from the disposal and treatment of wastes, provided that the fluids are not spilled. The report therefore recommended that the state should add radium to its spill protocols; it also noted that long-term disposal protocols for TENORM waste should be reviewed.

What can be done to address health concerns? What have others done?

Landowners:  The EPA recommends that individuals with private water wells test annually for constituents of concern, in this case radionuclides and radon. If standards are exceeded, the agency suggests retesting immediately and contacting local health officials. Some local health departments may provide free water testing. The EPA also suggests being aware of nearby activities that could potentially compromise well water. 12 Some states recommend that all private wells and community drinking water supplies be tested within a five-mile radius of a well pad. 13 Routine indoor radon testing is also recommended by the EPA, and in fact is required by some states as part of real estate transactions. 14

Local officials:  One example of a community solution to protect against potentially radioactive solid waste has been to test dump trucks as they enter a landfill. Using an outdoor radiation monitor will detect any radioactivity that exceeds a set threshold above background levels.

State officials:  In 2011, the Pennsylvania DEP set a statewide model for management of wastewater from shale development, requesting that operators not send this byproduct to water treatment facilities that discharge into waterways. As a result, almost 97% of wastewater from Pennsylvania energy operations is now recycled, injected into underground receiving wells, or treated at facilities that do not discharge into waterways. 15

Operators:  Both the Wilkes University and the University of Maryland studies recommend that energy development companies and municipal road maintenance crews refrain from applying wastewater fluids to roads as a de-icing and dust control technique until further investigation can determine the safety of this practice. While the Pennsylvania DEP study found little potential for exposure from wastewater-treated roads, it still recommended further study of the issue. 

Notes:

  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Radiation and Health,” updated June 29, 2015, http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/health_effects.html.
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Radiation and Radioactivity,” last updated January 23, 2013,http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/radiation_radioactivity.html.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Radiation Doses in Perspective,” last updated 9/24/2013,http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/perspective.html.
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Radionuclides in Drinking Water,” updated March 6, 2012,http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/radionuclides/index.cfm.
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Radionuclides Rule, June 2001,http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/radionuclides/pdfs/qrg_radionuclides.pdf.
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “A Regulator’s Guide to the Management of Radioactive Residuals from Drinking Water Treatment Technologies,July 2005,http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/docs/tenorm/816-r-05-004.pdf.
  7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon, updated August 4, 2015,http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html.
  8. Courtney Sperger, Kristin Cook, Kenneth Klemow, “Does Marcellus Shale Pose a Radioactivity Risk?” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research of Northeastern Pennsylvania Clearinghouse, August 1, 2012,http://energy.wilkes.edu/pages/184.asp.
  9. Sperger et al., “Does Marcellus Shale Pose a Radioactivity Risk?”
  10. Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (School of Public Health: University of Maryland), “Potential Public Health Impacts of Natural Gas Development and Production in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland,July 2014,http://www.marcellushealth.org/uploads/2/4/0/8/24086586/final_report_08.15.2014.pdf
  11. Perma-Fix Environmental Services, Inc.,”Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) Study Report,” prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (January 2015), http://www.elibrary.dep.state.pa.us/dsweb/Get/Document-105822/PA-DEP-TENORM-Study_Report_Rev._0_01-15-2015.pdf.
  12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Water: Private Wells,” updated March 6, 2012,http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/well/faq.cfm.
  13. Pennsylvania State University Extension Agency, “Drinking Water,” accessed November 21, 2014,http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/water/marcellus-shale/drinking-water.
  14. U.S. EPA, “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon,” updated August 4, 2015,http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html.
  15. The Associated Press, “Marcellus Shale Gas Drillers Recycling More Waste,” The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA),February 17, 2012, http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/marcellus-shale-gas-drillers-recycling-more-waste-1.1273083.