Mapping PFAS “Forever Chemicals”
in Oil & Gas Operations
FracTracker Alliance released a new map identifying the locations of over 1,200 oil and gas wells using toxic “forever chemicals” in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming.
The map includes a wealth of demographic data about the populations living near wells fracked with PFAS and/or PFAS precursors. Readers can identify levels of cancer risk per census block and sites where wells using PFAS chemicals and their precursors drill through aquifers.
Wells Fractured with Apparent PFAS and/or PFAS Precursors
This map is based on research conducted by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), with assistance from FracTracker Alliance, to identify the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their likely chemical precursors in the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluid. It also shows characteristics of the surrounding community including the total population per census block, the percentage of the population that is non-white, the percentage of the population that is low-income, and the cancer risk for that block.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
The wells mapped above were identified in a report that Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), with assistance from FracTracker Alliance, released in July 2021. The report presents evidence that oil and gas companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron have used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and/or substances that can degrade into PFAS, in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas in more than 1,200 wells in six U.S. states between 2012 and 2020.
The PSR report was highlighted in the New York Times.
“It’s critical that the public have access to information about potential exposure to toxic chemicals that put their health at risk,” said Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s Environment & Health Program Director. “Visualizing the locations of oil and gas sites that have used PFAS and/or PFAS precursors helps communities know what dangers they’re facing and take actions to protect themselves.”
A decade ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency approved several chemicals for use in oil and gas operations, despite voicing serious misgivings over their toxicity and the potential that the chemicals could degrade into PFAS. The health effects of these chemicals remain difficult to assess, in part due to the secrecy that shrouds their precise identity.
The lack of full disclosure of chemicals used in oil and gas operations raises the potential that PFAS could have been used even more extensively than records indicate, whether geographically, in other extraction techniques such as waterflooding, or in other stages of the oil and gas extraction process, such as drilling, that precede the underground injections known as fracking.
The Dangers of PFAS
PFAS are synthetic substances that are toxic in minuscule amounts and do not break down in the environment. They accumulate in the body over time, causing a range of serious health effects.
It was not known until now that PFAS were used in fracking, adding a highly potent substance to an already long list of toxic chemicals used in drilling and fracking. Learn more about fracking fluid in FracTracker’s Oil & Gas 101 Guide.
The EPA states that “Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to: infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).”
PFAS have been linked to cancer, birth defects, pre-eclampsia, and other serious health effects.
There is also evidence that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines resistance to infectious diseases, which is especially concerning amid the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Environmental Justice Concerns
The populations most vulnerable to adverse health effects due to PFAS exposure include pregnant women, the young, the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, and living near multiple sources of pollution.
Across the country, local and state leaders have declared racism a public health crisis or emergency. Tulane University of Public Health and Tropical Medicine found that “The accumulation of daily stressors associated with exposure to racism and discrimination can cause toxic stress beginning at an early age.”
Oil and gas activities heavily impact disadvantaged communities, as wells are often located in or adjacent to low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color. Already-existing health disparities combine with proximity to oil and gas operations to impose disproportionate health burden on these populations.
The data suggest that PFAS use in fracking imposes disproportionate impacts on populations of people of color, low-income communities, and those living in tribal regions, raising concerns about environmental justice. We see two areas of concern in particular.
First, the map above shows over 50 of these wells are located in five tribal regions of the Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas (OTSAs), where tribal governments retain significant authority.
Secondly, the census blocks with PFAS wells are 32% non-white. As a point of comparison, the population of Texas, the state with the highest concentration of PFAS wells, is 21% nonwhite, according to the US Census Bureau.
“It’s troubling to see the locations of oil and gas wells in which evidence shows companies used toxic PFAS or PFAS precursors,” said report author Dusty Horwitt. “FracTracker Alliance’s map increases the urgency for federal and state officials to determine the extent of PFAS use in oil and gas extraction and to ensure that people are protected.”
A Note on the Data
FracFocus is a site that collects and redistributes self-reported data about chemicals used to stimulate oil and gas wells in the hydraulic fracturing process. PSR and FracTracker Alliance scoured the FracFocus registries for chemicals that could be related to PFAS and their likely chemical precursors, and PSR then vetted that list with a variety of scientists familiar with the class of the so-called “forever chemicals.” These toxic chemicals are known to persist both in the environment and animals, including humans.
FracTracker then looked at demographic data of the communities surrounding these wells, as well as groundwater aquifers, in order to help frame future discussions of what the impacts of these toxic “forever chemicals” might be.
The Take Away
Here we see evidence of an industry choosing to use toxic chemicals that persist for decades – both in the environment and human body – in nearly 1,500 wells across the country that we know of. What’s more, federal regulators were aware of the risk but let it happen anyway. It’s time for oversight that protects health and the environment rather than corporate profits.
References & Where to Learn More
- Physicians for Social Responsibility report, Fracking with “Forever Chemicals”
- FracTracker Alliance Oil & Gas 101 Guide, “What is Fracking Fluid?“
- New York Times July 12, 2021 article by Hiroko Tabuchi, “E.P.A. Approved Toxic Chemicals for Fracking a Decade Ago, New Files Show“
- Rolling Stones July 13, 2021 article by Hannah Murphy, “Because Fracking Wasn’t Already Toxic Enough, the Oil and Gas Industry Decided to Add ‘Forever Chemicals’ to the Mix“
- Free online access to the film Dark Waters, hosted by Halt the Harm Network. Available now for streaming July 16-18th.
Data sources included in this article
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