Research highlight

Environment: Airborne radiation levels elevated near US fracking sites

Nature Communications

October 14, 2020

Unconventional oil and natural gas development, commonly known as fracking, is associated with increased levels of radioactive particles in the air in locations downwind of wells in the United States, a study published in Nature Communications finds.

Unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD) has seen a rapid expansion in the US in recent years. These techniques have been associated with a number of environmental impacts and may also affect the health of local residents. Naturally occurring radioactive material is a common by-product in oil and gas production. However, the impact of UOGD on the radioactivity or airborne particles is not well understood.

Petros Koutrakis and colleagues analysed the radioactivity of airborne particles collected at 157 radiation-monitoring stations across the US from 2001 to 2017, and compared this to the position and production records of 152,904 UOGD wells. They found elevated levels of beta radiation in areas located downwind of UOGD wells, with levels decreasing with distance (an additional 100 UOGD wells within 20 km was associated with a 0.024 mBq/m3 increase in beta radiation downwind). Exposure to ambient particle radioactivity has been associated with adverse health effects. However, the levels detected in this study are comparatively low. Further studies are needed to assess the potential health impacts from airborne particle radioactivity from UOGD.

doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-18226-w

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