“Forever chemicals” in Pennsylvania fracking wells could impact health of surrounding communities: Report

More than 5,000 wells in the state were injected with 160 million pounds of undisclosed, “trade-secret” chemicals, which potentially include PFAS.

PITTSBURGH — “Forever chemicals” have been used in Pennsylvania fracking wells, but it’s impossible to know how widespread contamination could be, according to a new report.

The report, published today by Physicians for Social Responsibility, an environmental health advocacy group, found eight documented cases of the group of chemicals known as PFAS(per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) used in unconventional gas wells between 2012 and 2015.

During the same time period, more than 5,000 wells in the state were injected with around 160 million pounds of undisclosed, “trade-secret” chemicals, which could include PFAS, according to the report, which includes a map of these sites.

“It’s impossible to know how widespread PFAS contamination from oil and gas wells might be at this point,” Dusty Horwitt, co-author of Physicians for Social Responsibility’s reports on PFAS in Pennsylvania, told Environmental Health News (EHN). “We need more transparency before we can begin to address this issue.”

Environmental Health News has previously reported on the use of PFAS at Pennsylvania oil and gas wells, mapping the locations of the eight wells where the chemicals have been used, tracking where waste from those wells has traveled, and documenting a case of PFAS contamination in drinking water at a Pennsylvania home that once had fracking wells on the property.

In Pennsylvania, fracking companies must publicly disclose what chemicals they use, but they’re permitted to withhold “trade secrets.” This exemption is used frequently. “Secret” ingredients were used in more than half of Pennsylvania fracking wells developed between 2013 and 2017, with the most heavy usage of secret chemicals occurring in southwestern Pennsylvania.

PFAS in fracking wells

PFAS are a class of more than 15,000 chemicals with similar properties that are used in a wide variety of household products to make them waterproof, grease-proof or stain resistant. The chemicals don’t break down naturally, so they can build up in the environment and human bodies. Exposure to PFAS is linked to health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, liver and thyroid problems, reproductive problems, lowered vaccine efficacy in children and increased risk of birth defects, among others.

The chemicals, which are extremely water-repellent, are sometimes used in fracking fluid to make the chemical mixture more stable and to more efficiently flush oil and gas out of the ground at high pressure. There’s also evidence that companies use the chemicals during initial drilling and other phases of oil and gas extraction, but since they aren’t required to disclose those chemicals, there’s no way of knowing how widespread the practice is.

Rural water concerns 

The new report notes that water wells in rural areas and communities near disposal sites for oil and gas waste may be at high risk of contamination.

Much of the fracking in Pennsylvania takes place in rural communities, where many households use private wells. There are more than one million private water wells in Pennsylvania serving about 3.5 million people in rural areas. Private drinking water wells are not protected by the federal Safe Water Drinking Act and aren’t regulated in most states, including Pennsylvania, so the water isn’t routinely tested or monitored, and the responsibility for cleaning up dangerous chemicals falls to homeowners.

“Considering how toxic and persistent these chemicals are and the evidence that they have been used in oil and gas extraction for decades,” Horwitt said, “it’s critical for state regulators to start looking for these contaminants in people’s drinking water near oil and gas sites.”

Several environmental advocacy groups are calling for a statewide ban on PFAS in Pennsylvania oil and gas operations in response to the new report.

Physicians for Social Responsibility published a similar report on Colorado in January of 2022, which found that PFAS were used in nearly 300 oil and gas wells in the state between 2011 and 2021. That report was influential in state regulators’ decision to ban the use of PFAS in oil and gas wells, making Colorado the first state to pass such a ban.

“PFAS pollution is a serious health concern,” said Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, one of the advocacy groups calling for a ban on PFAS in oil and gas wells, in a statement. “To protect residents from PFAS exposure, the Pennsylvania legislature must pass legislation that restricts the oil and gas industry from using any PFAS pollutants in their operations.”

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Climate scientist triumphs in defamation lawsuit against bloggers

In a landmark case, climate scientist Michael Mann won more than $1 million in a defamation lawsuit against bloggers who falsely accused him of data manipulation.

Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less
Global warming's pace quickens, warns new WMO chief
Credit: NOAA/Unsplash

Global warming's pace quickens, warns new WMO chief

The World Meteorological Organization's new leader emphasizes the accelerating rate of human-caused climate change and its complex impacts.

Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

UK: Labour's green investment plan faces major reduction

Keir Starmer has announced a significant cutback in Labour's ambitious £28bn green investment program due to economic pressures.

Kiran Stacey and Fiona Harvey report for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

Louisiana's new governor prioritizes fossil fuels over climate change

Governor Jeff Landry's administration is leaning toward fossil fuel interests, impacting Louisiana's environmental policies.

Terry L. Jones reports for Floodlight.

Keep reading...Show less

Texas will build its own gas power plants if private investment fails

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has announced the state's readiness to construct natural gas power plants if private investments don't materialize.

Claire Hao reports for the Houston Chronicle.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.