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Hydraulic fracturing: a toxicological threat for groundwater and drinking-water?

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Abstract

This paper deals with the possible impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), employed in the exploitation of unconventional shale gas and tight gas reservoirs, on groundwater, which is the most important source of drinking-water in Germany and many other European countries. This assessment, which is part of an interdisciplinary study by a panel of neutral experts on the risks and environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, is based mainly on data obtained from three ExxonMobil drilling sites in northern Germany. First, the basic technical aspects of fracking and its relevant water fluxes are explained. The type, purpose and fate of the constituents of the fracking fluids are discussed. The chemicals used in the fracking fluids are assessed with regard to their hazardous properties according to the Regulation (EC) No. 1272/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures (CLP regulation) and the German “Water Hazard Classes”. Contamination of groundwater by ingredients of fracking fluids may occur from under ground or may result from above-ground accidents associated with the transport, storage and handling of hazardous substances used as additives in fracking fluids. The degree of groundwater contamination cannot be predicted in a general way. Therefore, different dilutions of the fracking fluid in groundwater are considered. It is shown that the concentrations of most ingredients resulting from a 1:10,000 up to 1:100,000 dilution of the fracking fluid in groundwater are below health-based reference values such as the limit values of the European Drinking Water Directive, the WHO Guideline Values for Drinking-water Quality, and other health-based guide values for drinking-water. Regarding the salinity of fracking fluids, a dilution of 1:1,000 is sufficient to reach concentrations which are acceptable for drinking-water. From the human-toxicological point of view, the constituents of flowback water are more problematic with respect to drinking-water produced from groundwater than those of the fracking fluids. The few reliable data which have become available, as well as hydrogeological considerations, point in the direction of considerable salt concentrations and toxic constituents, e.g., Hg, As, Pb, Zn, Cd, BTX, PAHs, or even radioactive elements. The identification and assessment of reaction products and metabolites, which are produced as a result of the fracking operation and the metabolic activity of microorganisms, are important topics for further research. The recommendations include the need for a better understanding of the environmental impact of fracking operations, especially with regard to the development of sustainable rules for planning, permission, performance and management of fracking, and for the monitoring of groundwater quality around fracked drilling sites.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Alejandra Lenis Parra and Jörg Mießner for help with the data and the manuscript. Fiona Crowther’s help with language polishing is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Birgit C. Gordalla.

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Gordalla, B.C., Ewers, U. & Frimmel, F.H. Hydraulic fracturing: a toxicological threat for groundwater and drinking-water?. Environ Earth Sci 70, 3875–3893 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12665-013-2672-9

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