Depending who you ask, hydro fracking is either a safe procedure for reaching valuable sources of natural gas and oil, or it is a health hazard for anyone who lives, works or drinks water near a well that has been fracked.

Fracking is a “game changer” with low risk and high potential for rewards, according to a post on the website of the Texas-based Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. Yet this summer, opponents of fracking planned a protest in Washington, D.C., called Stop the Frack Attack. They billed it as the first such national protest to stop “dirty and dangerous fracking.”

So which is it? The answer may be unsettling. Scientists and the government do not yet know the full extent of the hazards of hydro fracking (the short name for hydraulic fracturing). Evidence is growing, however, that fracking is not as safe as was once thought.

EPA Announces New Study of Potential Contamination Near Drilling Areas

Hydro fracking is the process of extracting natural gas or oil from layers of shale rock that are deep within the earth. Previously, these deposits were unreachable. During fracking, tiny fractures are created in the shale by pumping water, sand and chemicals into the well. The fractures, or fissures, allow natural gas or oil to flow through the well to the surface. The process takes place deep within the earth.

The process raised questions about whether fracking could contaminate water or cause other potential health hazards. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that hydraulic fracturing did not pose a risk to drinking water. In 2005, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates drinking water. (The exact make up of the fluids that companies inject into the earth is not known.)

Just a few years later, amid growing concerns of environmental effects, the EPA announced in 2010 that it would conduct a new study to determine whether reports of water contamination in drilling areas is linked to fracking.

Studies Show Potential for Environmental Effects

In July, nonprofit news organization ProPublica published an article about a recently released study with implications about how fluids behave beneath the earth’s surface. The study was of salty fluids that occur naturally deep beneath the natural gas fields in Pennsylvania – not specifically of fracking fluids. But the study’s findings suggest potential for the effects of fracking fluids.

The testing of water wells and aquifers near Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale showed that the naturally occurring brine had likely migrated upward, contradicting the belief that the layers of rock will always seal in material that is injected through drilling.

The oil and gas industry and a scientist who is a member of the National Academy of Science’s peer review panel have criticized this study, noting that it cannot be determined that the salty fluids actually came from the Marcellus shale, what path the fluids took or the exact length of time that passed. The scientist did not, however, dispute the finding that the brine did move upward – implying that fracking fluids could as well.

Months earlier, a separate study predicted that contaminants from fracking could reach the surface within 100 years. And last year a study found that methane gas was more likely to contaminate water supplies in locations adjacent to drilling.

In Wyoming, the EPA has concluded that contamination of groundwater in central Wyoming was linked to fracking. Residents had complained that their well water turned brown after gas wells were fracked nearby. In 2008, the samples from the water wells showed hydrocarbons and traces of contaminants that could be related to fracking. The EPA cautioned residents not to drink the water and to ventilate their homes when they bathed because methane in the water could cause an explosion.

The EPA later found that pollution from abandoned oil and gas waste pits were responsible for some groundwater pollution, but contamination in two deep test wells had to have been caused by fracking.

Increasingly, it appears that the evidence continues to points to a wide range of potential hazards for people who work and live near wells.

New Warnings for Drilling Workers

Earlier this year, federal workplace regulators issued a hazard alert because workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of silica during the fracking process. Silica can cause a disease called silicosis. When breathed in, silica can cause inflammation and scarring, reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. A chemical safety expert says that at a high enough level, even short term exposure can cause long-term damage.

In one air sample taken for the study, silica levels were more than 10 times the safe limit. At that level, workers would be in danger even if they wore air-purifying half masks, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said. Silica dust levels at most drilling sites exceeded government safety standards, leaving the oil and gas industry rushing for solutions.

Silica is just the latest hazard for oil and gas workers, who face potential dangers from chlorine, hydrochloric acide or other chemicals used to clean hydraulic lines, exhaust, and deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

Health Risks From Fracking Are Uncertain

One of the most serious issues raised by potential environmental damage from fracking is whether human health is in danger. Like many other potential hazards associated with fracking, scientists and researchers say they do not have enough information.

ProPublica has reported that dozens of residents who live in areas with the most extensive natural gas drilling had symptoms of respiratory infections, headaches, nausea, rashes and neurological impairment. Tumors, benzene poisoning and other, more serious effects have also been reported.

Medical groups and government agencies are beginning to raise concerns about the potential for oil drilling, including the fracking process, to damage the health of residents and workers. The extent and cause of health problems, however, is not yet known, because state and federal governments have not comprehensively examined how drilling affects human health.

As worries about the potential health and environmental hazards of fracking grow, governments and residents in areas where fracking is used extensively are increasingly vocal about their opposition to the process. Ultimately, studies may provide more answers to lingering questions about the safety of fracking, but only time will tell.

If your property has been damaged due to drilling or pipeline activity, or you or a loved one has been injured because of a gas leak or while working on an oil rig, contact a lawyer experienced in handling oil and gas injuries.