Concerns Over Radioactive Fracking Waste Continue to Mount
By Sharon Kelly
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Amid all the push back to fracking, most of the attention has focused on what drillers put into the ground. The amount of water used. The chemicals that make up energy companies' secret mix. Whether these dangerous chemicals will contaminate our drinking water. But one of the biggest problems of fracking, indeed, the Achilles heel of this innovative drilling technique that is giving fossil fuels a second lease on life, is the waste that comes out of the ground.
How will we handle the massive amounts of toxic waste that each well produces when fracking is used? Will we dump the millions of gallons of wastewater produced from each well into rivers, pass it through sewage treatment plants, allow it to evaporate in open-faced pits, inject it into the ground at special disposal sites?
One of the reasons these questions are so urgent is that this wastewater is often radioactive. When it was revealed in February 2011 that Pennsylvania was not only sending millions of gallons of this waste, sometimes with radium levels 3,000 times the safe level—through sewage treatment plants incapable of correcting radioactivity—which then discharged into rivers, state officials panicked and denied there was cause for concern.
This January, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that it would undertake a “comprehensive” study of radiation from oil and gas development in the state, home to the most actively drilled parts of the Marcellus shale. At the same time, the agency re-publicized results from tests downstream from wastewater treatment plants, which until 2011 had taken Marcellus wastewater carrying naturally occurring radioactive materials like radium and uranium.
“Most results showed no detectable levels of radioactivity, and the levels that were detectable did not exceed safe drinking water standards,” the agency said in its January statement.
But it turns out those results weren’t the whole story when it comes to the handling of radioactive materials from the state’s fracking boom.
In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it has reached a settlement with an industrial waste treatment plant which had been discharging natural gas wastewater into a Pennsylvania creek without properly treating it. Environmental regulators discovered high levels of radium around the plant’s discharge pipe. The plant was fined over $80,000 and the operator agreed to make up to $30 million in upgrades before accepting any more Marcellus shale wastewater.
The industrial wastewater plant, Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Josephine, was first studied by Conrad Volz and a team of students at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who found high levels of contaminants associated with drilling wastewater in Blacklick Creek, part of the Allegheny River watershed, where the plant discharged. Professor Volz’s team did not test for radioactivity, however. In April 2011, the Pennsylvania DEP asked drillers to voluntarily stop trucking wastewater to other plants that discharged into the state’s rivers and streams.
But in June of that year, state officials tested sediments around Pennsylvania Brine Treatment's Josephine plant. Those tests uncovered high levels of radium 226—44 times the drinking water standard—in the plant's discharge pipe.
There's a saying among environmental regulators that "dilution is the solution to pollution" because when contaminants are watered down, levels of toxic materials can fall below safety thresholds. Wastewater from treatment plants is discharged into rivers and streams, so many shale gas boosters argued that even if treatment plants could not remove radioactive materials, the fast-moving water could dilute any resulting contamination. But the tests around the Josephine plant showed that dilution was not sufficient—levels of radium 226 over 65 feet downstream were 66 percent higher than the drinking water standard.
The levels of radioactivity found at the Josephine plant were not high enough to cause any health threat to passersby or to workers, but those levels are high enough that if the radium entered a person's body—whether through an open wound or through drinking contaminated water—there could be a health hazard. Radium also bioaccumulates in fish, meaning that fish in the creek who ingested the radioactive metal could carry higher levels than were in the water.
In February of 2011, several months before those tests were taken, Pennsylvania had drawn national attention for allowing plants that discharged into drinking water sources like rivers and streams to take Marcellus wastewater—which carries higher levels of radioactive materials than waste from other oil and gas formations—without testing at any point to make sure that drinking water standards were not exceeded. Desmog has previously reported on the threat from radionuclides in shale gas waste.
A different round of tests of Pennsylvania rivers near treatment plants had been seized on by former state environmental officials and trumpeted as an indication that wastewater was being properly handled and that state regulations were sufficient to police the industry. But the multi-year Clean Water Act investigation of the Josephine plant, conducted under the watchful eye of the feds, turned up a markedly different result.
Pennsylvania state regulators’ long-run difficulty policing the industry is particularly troubling because right now, the agency charged with protecting the environment in Pennsylvania is in turmoil. The DEP in this state—ground zero for the shale gas boom—is being run, part-time, by a person with no environmental background who is pulling double-duty as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
Of course, this interim appointment was made because the former secretary, Michael Krancer, stepped down while under investigation by the state’s auditor general for how his office handled water contamination testing related to shale gas.
All of this calls into question the ability of states to regulate fracking booms effectively.
The hazards from shale gas drilling are complex. Another concern related to the high levels of radium in shale wastewater is the radon produced alongside the natural gas. Radon, a highly carcinogenic gas, is produced when radium undergoes radioactive decay and does not burn so it could be released into houses and workplaces by gas-fired appliances.
Earlier this month, kitchen workers in New York City organized a public forum on the gas and the possible risks for the health of New Yorkers if a new pipeline, designed to ship Marcellus gas to major metropolises in the region, is constructed.
Gov. Cuomo (D-NY) very recently announced that he plans to make a decision on the state’s drilling moratorium soon. New York’s current assessment of the dangers from radon is thin, experts have alleged, pointing out that only a few paragraphs are devoted to the lethal gas.
Plans are underway to construct a pipeline that would carry Marcellus gas to the nation's biggest city, New York City. But if that happens, some experts warn of a potential public health crisis. The problem centers around the way that radon breaks down. Radon has a half life of only 3.8 days, meaning that if the gas takes about a week to travel from the wellhead to the consumer, radons levels will have fallen off by 75 percent. But the Spectra pipeline would take Pennsylvania Marcellus gas to New York in less than a day, giving the radon very little time to decay.
New York’s current plan is to test for radon once drilling goes forward, “in order to verify that they do not pose an unanticipated health risk to end-users of the gas,” Elizabeth Glass Geltman of CUNY School of Public Health told a crowded room at the public forum this month. “If you wait for that to happen, the infrastructure will be in place and the argument will be that we can’t change the infrastructure,” she warned.
The science on radon in the gas is evolving—the United State Geological Service (USGS) sampled a tiny handful of wells in a preliminary analysis and the levels they found in that sample were on the low end of the estimates made by experts. But that study only looked at three Marcellus wells, and the USGS said there was a need for further testing. The levels the USGS found were as high as 20 times the levels EPA considers safe for indoor air, so dilution should be plenty to take care of any possible health concerns, but some experts believe other Marcellus wells may carry much higher levels of radon—and have calculated that it could pose a serious public health threat.
In the meantime, some in New York are pressing for change through the legislature. A state bill would require monitoring for radon in all natural gas (not just Marcellus gas). But in neighboring Pennsylvania, the state only plans radon testing “as appropriate” as part of its ongoing radioactivity study.
Time will tell how thorough those tests will be.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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