The big news last month is that radioactive contamination in a Pennsylvania creek is almost certainly due to an out-of-control fracking industry.
Here’s the essential background you need to know
A team of researchers led by a Duke University professor gathered samples of water and sediment from Blacklick Creek in western Pennsylvania. The creek collects outflow from a water treatment plant that processes wastewater from nearby fracking operations. The big surprise: the sediment was radioactive.
As reported in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology and in many media reports, the scientists found levels of radium about 200 times greater than usual for the area.
Professor Avner Vengosh of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University was a co-author of the study. He highlighted the astonishing findings by telling reporters, “The absolute levels that we found are much higher than what you allow in the U.S. for any place to dump radioactive material.”
Blacklick Creek is a tributary of the Conemaugh River, which feeds into the Kiskiminetas River and ultimately the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania. A law passed 20 years ago exempts fracking byproducts from regulation under the federal Clean Water Act and related rules.
Is this something we need to worry about?
You’d better believe this is worrisome. Once radioactive materials get into the water, they will make their way into the food chain. Professor Vengosh said in an interview, “The radium will be bio-accumulating. You eventually could get it in the fish.”
The Conemaugh-Allegheny water region is a critical one for wildlife, agriculture, livestock, and human consumption. If water with radioactive contaminants is used for irrigation, the radioactivity is likely to pass into harvested produce. Radioactivity can likewise pass from livestock and wildlife to humans when animal flesh is eaten.
There is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation, which is why medical services carefully monitor patients who undergo x-rays, MRI scans, and treatment with radioisotopes. Every exposure contains some risk.
Radiation can break chemical bonds in living tissue. For humans, one primary worry is that those broken bonds can affect the DNA in reproductive cells, causing sterility or birth defects. Elsewhere in the body, the immune system can attempt to repair damage caused by radioactivity, but the nature of radiation damage can corrupt the repair process and create cancerous cells. Finally, cell damage due to radiation exposure can be so severe that the body is unable to repair the damage at all, and the affected person dies.
Be concerned, but don’t panic just yet
It’s important not to overreact to this news. Pennsylvania’s fracking radioactivity problem is nowhere near as dangerous as, say, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. However, if you’re concerned by this news, you’re probably on the right track. The very limited Duke University study looked at one small creek. We do not yet have an assessment of the overall danger throughout the state, and energy industry opposition may make it impossible to fund an adequate study for years.