Water

Drinking water supplies are typically drawn from either groundwater (wells and springs) or surface water (rivers, reservoirs). Residents’ health depends on the ability to protect these sources from contamination. 

Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) requires large volumes of water. Drillers make this water toxic by adding chemicals to produce frack fluid. The water is also contaminated by naturally occurring materials in the shale that are carried by the frack fluid back to the surface during the process of extracting shale gas. These processes can contaminate water supplies in regions of shale gas development. Water contamination can also occur when wastewater is transported away from the site or stored indefinitely in injection wells.  

Some contaminants can alter the taste, odor, or clarity of water, while others are difficult to detect. Many contaminants are toxic, and many of the other chemicals involved have not been tested for human toxicity.  

Drinking Water Sources

Well (or spring) water draws from groundwater and therefore may be at risk. If your water comes from a private well, you should be particularly aware of water quality issues. Private well water quality is not regulated in the United States, and well owners are responsible for performing their own monitoring and testing. Performing baseline testing prior to shale gas development and then doing regular monitoring is particularly important if you live within three miles of shale gas activities.  

Municipal water supplies may also be at risk of contamination from shale gas development. Municipal water can be contaminated by surface water discharges, insufficient treatment of contaminated wastewater, illegal dumping of wastewater, leachate from landfills accepting shale gas waste, and byproducts formed at drinking water treatment facilities from reactions between hydraulic fracturing contaminants and disinfectants.  

How Water Quality Affects You

Risk of groundwater contamination is greater in locations involving the use of fracking fluid and the storage and transportation of fracking waste. Such locations include:

  • Well pads 

  • Recycled water and wastewater retention ponds or above ground pools 

  • Transportation routes of materials and waste, especially where accidents occur 

  • Roads treated with fracking brine 

  • Industrial waste treatment facilities accepting liquid fracking waste 

  • Local landfills accepting fracking waste and sewage treatment plants processing the related leachate 

  • Injection storage wells 

  • Anywhere illegal dumping occurs

If you live near shale gas facilities, you may be exposed to toxic chemicals in your water through:

 

  • Ingesting them by drinking contaminated water 

  • Absorbing them through direct skin contact as when showering  

  • Breathing in vapors, volatile organic compounds dissolved in the water, that are released during use

Such exposure may result in short-term or acute symptoms such as nausea, rashes, stomach pain, and skin, eye, and nose irritation. If exposure is frequent or spread out over a long time, prolonged or chronic symptoms may result. 

 

Well water may be more impacted than municipal water since it is not subject to the same regulations. Regardless of the type of water you receive, it is vitally important to be aware of changes in your water so that you can take steps to avoid or mitigate exposure.  

What You Can Do

Different levels of contamination call for different plans of action. At minimum, if testing shows that your well is contaminated, do not drink the water. Notify your state department of environmental protection and department of health.

 

If more serious contamination is found, you should also limit bathing and cooking with this water and ventilate rooms where the water is used (for example, laundry, kitchen, and bathrooms). If your water becomes contaminated, you should consider long-term water treatment options. 

 

Other Steps You Can Take

 

Concerned about your water quality? There are many steps you can take to limit potential health impacts.

 

If you think your spring or well water may be contaminated:

  • Get your water tested. 

  • Avoid using it and consider using bottled water for drinking, cooking, and especially making drinks like baby formula.  

  • Consider using an alternative source of water when showering as VOCs can become airborne when water sprays from a showerhead. 

  • If you must drink or cook with your spring or well water, leave it uncovered in a pitcher or bottle overnight before using it to allow VOCs to evaporate. If possible, also vent the air. 

  • Ventilate rooms where you are using water. Be sure your bathroom is effectively vented with an exhaust fan to pull steam and air out while the water is running, and until all water vapor is out of the air. If possible, vent the air in your laundry area and kitchen as well when you use the water.  

  • Filter your water. There are many options for home water filters, but no filter will remove all possible contaminants. At a minimum, you can filter your tap water for drinking and cooking with a filtered water pitcher, available at many stores or online. Other devices attach to faucets, fit under the kitchen sinks, or even filter all household water. The EPA and EWG provide information on different types of filters. 

  • Keep a health diary for all of your family members and take to your health care providers if you think you are experiencing health symptoms related to exposure. See Tips for Talking to Your Health Care Provider. 

  • Stop drinking your water if you or someone in your family has stomach pain or discomfort, muscle pains, or other unusual symptoms.  

  • If your water burns your skin or causes a rash, take showers and baths somewhere else. Go see your health care provider and call your state environmental protection agency.  

  • If you live in Pennsylvania and you experience health symptoms related to your water, contact the PA Oil and Natural Gas Production Health Registry and record your symptoms. 

  • Stay informed. Pennsylvania residents are encouraged to sign up with the PA DEP e-notice program, which will alert you when drilling permits have been issued in your area so you will know which activities are taking place near your home. If you live in another state, contact your state department of environmental protection for information on drilling permits or other shale gas issues. 

  • Contact EHP if you have questions.