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Study Finds Shared Chemicals Between Toothpaste, Ice Cream – And Fracking Fluid

KUNC File Photo
A drill rig in Northern Colorado.

Fracking fluid -- is it a dangerous substance, full of secret chemicals and cancer-causing toxins? Or is it safe enough to drink?

A new study from researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder takes a stab at answering that question. Their take: much of what's found in fracking fluid isn’t all that different from common chemicals found in your house -- and some of it's even in your ice cream.

Why does it matter what's in fracking fluid? Those living near active drilling areas are concerned because they worry about leaks or spills.

Fracking fluid has also been controversial because many companies have refused to disclose their proprietary chemical mixes, saying they would lose competitive advantage. Some sites, like FracFocus, have lists of chemicals used in fracking, but the lists aren't very specific, said Michael Thurman, the lead author of this study, published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

"They use very general names of the chemicals, what is used. Our goal was to take those names and figure out what they might be," he said.

A little background: Fracking fluid is mostly water, and some sand. The water carries the sand deep down into a well, and the sand, under pressure, makes cracks in surround rocks and holds it open.

The mix also contains a few other ingredients to ease the hydraulic fracturing along. These ingredients help the oil or gas flow out of the well, by doing things like breaking up debris in the well, killing bacteria that could inhibit flow, and reducing friction.

These added chemicals are present only in small percentages of the total, but given that it takes around 4 million gallons of water to frack a well, even a small percentage can be a big amount.

A subset of these -- often around half of the organic chemicals in fracking fluid -- are called surfactants.

"A surfactant is a soap. So [the molecule is] water soluble on one end and it's oily on the other," said Thurman.

The researchers tried to identify these surfactants in their study. They analyzed fracking fluid using samples from five different states, including some from Weld County, Colorado.

Their findings?

"From an average person's point of view, the surfactants themselves are some of the same compounds that we use day to day, they are not some type of dark, super-toxic chemicals," said Thurman.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Ingredients in ice cream are in the same chemical family as those used in fracking fluids.

The two types of surfactants they found were those found in soaps, and those used as food additives in laxatives, and in your Rocky Road -- a chemical known as polyethylene glycol.

"If you go to the grocery store and look at these, you will see these as additives for foods," said Thurman.

Another chemical that the researchers did not find is a compound known to be an endocrine disruptor, which past studies have found in fracking fluids.

"So part of our message is that we didn't find those compounds."

The method the scientists used to identify different chemicals has another potential use as well. The chemical identification can be used "fingerprint" fracking fluid, and identify if groundwater has been contaminated by the fluid, as some communities have alleged.

Before you go swigging down fracking fluid in lieu of a milkshake for an après-ski snack, though, a few caveats:

First, the study had a small sample size. To get water samples of fracking fluid, researchers have to have energy companies' cooperation. In this case, it took the scientists two years just to get eight to 10 samples -- hardly a representative survey.

Second, the researchers didn't analyze all the chemicals added to fracking fluid. They're still going to look for other surfactants, and they also did not analyze chemicals used to kill bacteria, for example.

"We are not looking at the biocides and other components that might be toxic," said Thurman.

The scientists are also still working to understand if these chemicals are transformed into new forms under the heat and pressure they experience deep underground.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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