Fast Facts on Frac Sand Mining: Silica Dust, Air Quality and Our Health
Apr 07, 2014
- Silica dust is a known carcinogen, according to the latest update in the 2014 report on carcinogens by the National Institute of Health. Silica dust is produced by frac sand mining operations as a waste byproduct. Most studies are on sillicosis and cancer linked to occupational exposure, but the report acknowledges that "residents near quarries and sand and gravel operations potentially are exposed to respirable crystalline silica."
- Breathing silica dust causes silicosis, a serious and incurable lung condition that causes scarring in the lungs, difficulty breathing, and in some cases, death.
- Silicosis also causes severe cough and weakness. It hinders the body’s ability to fight infections, leaving the patient vulnerable to other illnesses that can cause chest pains and respiratory failure.
- Risk factors and potential effects of silicosis include susceptibilities to bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, lung cancer, and tuberculosis, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
- Symptoms of silicosis may not manifest themselves for fifteen to twenty years after silica dust exposure. The negative public health effects of frac sand mining in Wisconsin will not be fully understood for decades.
- In Wisconsin, 75 people have died of silicosis between 1996 and 2005, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Most victims were mining and manufacturing workers, but this demographic could change as more citizens are exposed to higher levels of silica dust and if the state requires more air quality monitoring and scientists study the data.
How do people come in contact with silica dust in the air?
- Fugitive dust is an emission created when silica dust blows off of mine sites and off of the backs of trucks. Although efforts can be taken to reduce the amount of fugitive silica dust that enters the air, such fugitive dust is still likely to enter the lungs of families who live near frac sand mines.
- Near frac sand mining in Auburn, Wisconsin, citizens have found layers of silica dust on their belongings. They have also been particularly concerned about the health of children who attend a school located only a quarter of a mile away from a loading station.
- People who are exposed to silica dust can be at risk for silicosis even if the dust is not visible to the eye. If the dust is visible, the risk is almost definite.
- One of the only ways to prevent silicosis from worsening is to avoid sources of silica dust. This will be nearly impossible for families whose lands are increasingly surrounded by frac sand mines that emit silica dust. Such families may not have the resources to move elsewhere.
Is the government regulating frac sand mining and protecting our air?
- Citizens petitioned the Wisconsin DNR in 2011 to adopt and enforce an air quality standard of 3 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air, the standard adopted by California. The DNR denied the petition, even though the DNR conducted a study that documented the health risks of silica dust and concluded that it meets the definition of a known carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant.
- By contrast, Minnesota governmental health, environment, transportation, agriculture agencies collaborated to develop and issue model air quality standards to guide government and industry planning. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board published an in-depth toolkit to assist local governments in planning for and regulating frac sand mining activity on March 19, 2014. More information on frac sand mining in Minnesota can be found on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s silica sand mining page.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – Workplace Safety and Health Topic: Silica
Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation – Basics on air quality and particle pollution
University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies – Health effects of particulate matter and silica exposure