Methods of Measuring Radioactivity in Fracking Wastewater May Be Inaccurate: Iowa Study

Understanding the Radioactive Ingrowth and Decay of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in the Environment: An Analysis of Produced Fluids from the Marcellus Shale
Environmental Health Perspectives (April 2, 2015; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1408855) / by Andrew W. Nelson, et al.

Background: The economic value of unconventional natural gas resources has stimulated rapid globalization of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. However, natural radioactivity found in the large volumes of “produced fluids” generated by these technologies is emerging as an international environmental health concern. Current assessments of the radioactivity concentration in liquid wastes focus on a single element – radium. However, the use of radium alone to predict radioactivity concentrations can greatly underestimate total levels.

Objective: We investigated the contribution to radioactivity concentrations from naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), including uranium, thorium, actinium, radium, lead, bismuth, and polonium isotopes to the total radioactivity of hydraulic fracturing wastes.

Methods: For this study we used established methods and developed new methods designed to quantitate NORM of public health concern that may be enriched in complex brines from hydraulic fracturing wastes. Specifically, we demonstrate the use of high purity germanium gamma spectrometry and isotope dilution alpha spectrometry to quantitate NORM.

Results: We observed that radium decay products are initially absent from produced fluids due to differences in solubility. However, in systems closed to the release of gaseous radon, our model predicts that decay products will begin to ingrow immediately and (under these closed-system conditions) can contribute to an increase in the total radioactivity for over 100 years.

Conclusions: Accurate predictions of radioactivity concentrations are critical for estimating doses to potentially exposed individuals and the surrounding environment. These predictions must include an understanding of the geochemistry, decay properties, and ingrowth kinetics of radium and its decay product radionuclides


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