Chemical Valley industries are arranging to use shale gas supplies that very likely could be contaminated with radon, given how these gas feedstocks are extracted through fracking — a technique that is used to retrieve gas from shale rock located very deep underground. Two Texas companies have agreed to send this shale gas from the northeastern United States to the Nova Chemical plant in Sarnia, and there is wider industry support for these imports of gas from fracking.
For the sake of the health and safety of the residents of Sarnia-Lambton — and others around the region — it is important that we apply the precautionary principle to this issue. We should assume that shale gas could come with radon contamination, if we cannot prove otherwise.
This gas is from shale that often contains significant quantities of uranium, as well as the products of its radioactive decay, including radium and radon, a colourless, odourless, and intensely radioactive gas. Because it is common in many rock formations throughout North America and elsewhere, radon is responsible for most of our daily exposure to damaging radiation. Radon gas that seeps up from subterranean rock formations often accumulates in basements — sometimes resulting in dangerous levels. Lung cancer caused by breathing radon contaminated air already is estimated to cause 25,000 deaths per year in the United States alone and is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking.
It is very possible that gas from fracking frequently is radioactive, since radon could be mixed with shale gas, due to their occurrence in the same rocks. Radon is chemically inert, which means that even when radon-containing gas is burned, the radon portion emerges intact. When this radon is released into the atmosphere along with the carbon dioxide from burning the methane in the gas, the air around us would become polluted with radioactive gas. When shale gas is burned in an enclosed space (e.g. inside a building) the air inside could become radioactive if there are any leaks in the exhaust ductwork. Similarly, when shale gas is converted into other gases by petrochemical industries, those product gases might also be radioactive due to radon contamination.
The difficulty of studying the impacts of substances that already are used and produced in Chemical Valley should be clear, now that years of delays have held back regional health study plans. There is no independent and officially recognized study of any impacts from the known carcinogens, as well as endocrine disruptors, and numerous other dangerous substances, in and around the Sarnia-Lambton petrochemical facilities. Bringing shale gas that may be contaminated with radon into Chemical Valley would complicate these matters further.
Would there ever be any independent testing for radon contamination? How thorough would such tests be? Would the full results be disclosed to employees, and the general public?
We ask these questions because possible radon contamination is not being discussed by companies and organizations which are pursuing shale gas imports for Sarnia-Lambton, without addressing any pollution threats (during the recent Sarnia-Lambton Shale Gas Conference, for example — which was held to discuss and promote shale gas imports into Sarnia-Lambton).
We are focusing on threats from radon, but there are many health and environmental dangers associated with shale gas. Water contamination is the worst of the impacts around the sites which are fracked to retrieve this gas. Yet, there are plans for fracking in Ontario — beginning in south Lambton. Importing shale gas for petrochemical industries would stimulate further fracking in Ontario, and elsewhere. In the meantime, the worldwide movement to ban fracking is gaining momentum with the recent bans by France and New Jersey.
In view of the potential negative impacts on the health and well-being of our citizens, we will suggest that there should be a ban on fracking across Ontario.
There also should be an immediate moratorium on imports of shale gas to Ontario until tests for radon in the gas have been completed and publicized. If radon is found in shale gas, it would be one more good reason to ban fracking altogether.
Toban Black, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology with Environment & Sustainability;
Robert Cory, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Chemistry
(An abbreviated version of this blog was published as a letter to the editor in The Observer, Sarnia, Ontario.)