When hydraulic fracturing (or fracking – the technique of extracting natural gas from rocks) was thrust into the public consciousness with the release of the 2010 film Gasland, most of the conversation centered around water contamination. Since then, questions have been raised about some of the other byproducts of fracking, including earthquakes, waste disposal, and now, air emissions. A new study from the Colorado School of Public Health reveals that emissions from fracking sites contain known carcinogens and other harmful chemicals.

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This isn’t the first we’ve heard about air pollution caused by fracking; earlier this month, the New York Times reported that natural gas drilling had been linked to poor air quality and smog in rural parts of Wyoming.

The new study, “Human Health Risk Assessment of Air Emissions from Development of Unconventional Natural Gas Resources,” notes that air pollution caused by gas drilling could be linked to chronic health problems. The report, which is based on three years of monitoring in the town of Battlement Mesa, CO (population 5,000), found several potentially toxic chemicals, including benzene (which the EPA identifies as a known carcinogen), ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, in the air near natural gas wells.

Natural gas drilling is typically a four-step process that begins with drilling and is followed by hydraulic fracturing (the injection of water and chemicals into the drilled area). Then, after the fracking fluids flow back, hydrocarbons and natural gas are released. According to the report, health risks are greater for people living closest to the gas wells. “We also calculated higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells as compared to those residing further [away],” says the report. “Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risk from both scenarios.”Despite concerns, the EPA removed air pollution from the topics it’s planning to consider for a forthcoming study on fracking.

+ University of Colorado

photos via Wikimedia Commons