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Citizen Voices Matter: In Western Wisconsin

About Dr. Crispin Pierce

Dr. Pierce is an Associate Professor and Program Director of the Environmental Public Health Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. His academic interests in biology and bioenvironmental studies led him to earn a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of California at San Francisco.

Why Dr. Pierce is studying silica dust in Wisconsin

Environmental problems are often also public health problems. In Wisconsin, there has been a boom of mining for quartz, or silica, sand used in the hydro fracturing industry to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas in the United States. The silica dust from frac sand mining and processing is a federally recognized carcinogen.

“When airborne silica dust particles enter our lungs, making it harder to breathe, it can act like asbestos,” said Dr. Pierce. “Crystalline silica is a particularly potent component of the quartz dust, and causes silicosis and lung cancer.”

Dr. Pierce explains that there is dust you can see near frac sand operations, but there are also especially fine particles of dust. Smaller dust is composed of particulate matter that is the diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less (referred to as PM2.5). The average human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter. Dust as small as PM2.5 is not only lighter, but it can travel farther and is easier to inhale than larger, more visible dust.

“Nationally, federal agencies are starting to do more to protect workers and the public from problems associated with the dust,” said Dr. Pierce. “The Environmental Protection Agency has recently recognized the danger that these fine particles pose, lowering the public PM2.5 standard by 20%. Worker protection may improve soon as well because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing new rules to lower the silica standard for workers by 50%.”

“Scientists have decades of research associating higher levels of silica in the workplace with silicosis and cancer. And we know that exposure to fine particles in polluted cities such as Beijing, China is clearly associated with more heart and lung diseases. But further investigation is needed into public exposure and health risks from fine particulates (PM2.5) including silica emitted from frac sand operations.”

At this time, exposure to lower levels of fine particles and silica dust around frac sand plants is not well known. However, now that more than 110 frac sand mine or processing plant permits have been approved in Wisconsin, public exposure to fine particles and silica is increasing.

Better regulation of mining air pollution permits could help. And if state legislators would make public health and science a priority, state law could require the industry to better monitor and measure the dust. But instead, independent researchers like Dr. Pierce are doing the time-intensive and expensive work to document frac sand dust in Wisconsin.

“Many silica levels at Wisconsin frac sand operations have been higher than workplace standards,” said Dr. Pierce. “In addition, our short-term field measurements of fine particles around sand plants have been higher than the regional levels documented by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. We believe that mandatory long-term monitoring of PM2.5 particles around sand plants should be required, reported to the public, and tested against EPA standards to protect citizens in Wisconsin.”

How you can help

Please share Dr. Pierce’s story. You can learn more about frac sand mining on our website. If you donate to Midwest Environmental Advocate’s legal effort, you will be supporting the work of our attorneys who are helping citizens with impact litigation cases against mining companies that aren’t protecting our air, water and land. We provide technical and legal support that informs permit reviews and future litigation.