Scientists from Duke University have detected high levels of ammonium and iodide in fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This is the first time that these two chemicals, toxic to both humans and wildlife, have been associated with hydraulic fracturing.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Duke researchers identified these chemicals not only in wastewater samples taken from oil and gas production sites but also in samples from a spill site in West Virginia and three disposal sites in Pennsylvania.

According to the study, wastewater is being both accidentally and purposefully dumped into streams and rivers. Ammonium by itself is already harmful to organic life, as it becomes ammonia when dissolved in water; iodide can become carcinogenic when combined with the chlorine in tap water.

A natural gas drilling rig located west of Wyoming's Wind River Range (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

A natural gas drilling rig located west of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Rigs such as these are used in hydraulic fracturing to pump a combination of chemicals and water into the ground to crack open deposits of oil and gas. (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

This news may be considered an added insult (or further injury) to injury for Pennsylvania residents, following the news last August that fracking wastewater had already contaminated 243 private drinking wells in 22 of the state’s counties.

As the study’s authors write, “Bromide, iodide, and ammonium in surface waters can impact stream ecosystems and promote the formation of toxic brominated-, iodinated-, and nitrogen disinfection byproducts during chlorination at downstream drinking water treatment plants. Our findings indicate that discharge and accidental spills of OGW to waterways pose risks to both human health and the environment.”

Terrence Collins, director of the Institute for Green Science at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, voiced his own concern to the Daily Climate in an email. “Widely practiced chemical treatments to kill pathogens are likely to cause the iodide to become incorporated into organic matter in the drinking water,” he wrote, “and I am concerned that this could result in increased incidences of cancer.”

Fracking wastewater – even containing iodide and ammonium – is not currently regulated under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. This is of special concern to residents of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as Duke researchers discovered levels of ammonium in wastewater outflows to be 50 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality threshold.

“We are releasing this wastewater into the environment and it is causing direct contamination and human health risks,” study co-author Avner Vengosh, a professor of water quality and geochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told the Daily Climate. “It should be regulated and it should be stopped. That’s not even science; it’s common sense.”

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