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Beryllium, one of most toxic substances known, in fracking flowback

May 29, 2013

When it comes to toxic substances that start with B, which are present in fracking flowback and therefore find a variety of ways to enter the human body, I’ve mostly been aware of benzene, 2-butoxyethanol, and barium.  Maybe some of the other ones that begin with B — the benzene derivatives, the phthalates — are harder to pronounce.

Enter beryllium.

I only heard yesterday that it’s present in fracking flowback. Today I learned that “beryllium fumes and dust are one of the most toxic substances known,” according to the Beryllium Support Group. Beryllium is classified as a known human carcinogen by EPA and ATSDR. And sure enough, it’s used to make drill bits for the shale gas industry.

The industry brags about that. For example, although the Agora Financial writer can’t spell “indispensable,” here’s a tidbit:

With Great Courage Comes Even Greater Reward – Agora Financial

Beryllium’s strength and nonsparking properties have made it indispensible in the recovery of our nation’s shale oil and shale gas… New directional drilling 

Beryllium kills. It is best known for debilitating the lungs, but it can also impair the liver, spleen, and other organs; it can even turn the feet blue. See the ATSDR Public Health Statement about Berylium here.

I can’t stop thinking about the workers exposed to fracking flowback: Randy Moyer, with debilitating illness including intense respiratory distress that’s sent him to the emergency room 11 times; and the images of workers cleaning out frac tanks without even wearing a respirator.  I think about Carol French’s daughter with her enlarged spleen and others in Bradford County with enlarged and ruptured spleens.  There is no factsheet about beryllium, you can be sure, distributed either to workers or to residents in shale country.

Beryllium has, in fact, been turning up in flowback from shale gas and oil drilling for some time.  Awash in awareness of other toxic materials, some of us concerned about worker health and public health have overlooked it.

From a post one year ago in the comments section of this StateImpact article, beryllium is listed as a flowback component, known to the state of New York at least by 2011:

Just for the heck of it let’s look at the chemicals found in the flowback water. This is from the state of NY that recently extended it’s moratorium. As already stated, many of these chemicals are deadly in small concentrations.

SGEIS Revised      Date of Completion of Revised dSGEIS:
September 7, 2011

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Revised Draft

Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement

On The Oil, Gas and Solution Mining

Regulatory Program

Table 5.9 – Parameters present in a limited set of flowback
analytical results103 (Updated July 2011)

CAS Number Parameters Detected in Flowback from PA and WV

00087-61-6 1,2,3-Trichlorobenzene

00095-63-6 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene

00108-67-8 1,3,5-Trimethylbenzene

00105-67-9 2,4-Dimethylphenol

00087-65-0 2,6-Dichlorophenol

00078-93-3 2-Butanone / Methyl ethyl ketone

00091-57-6 2-Methylnaphthalene

00095-48-7 2-Methylphenol

109-06-8 2-Picoline (2-methyl pyridine)

00067-63-0 2-Propanol / Isopropyl Alcohol / Isopropanol /

00108-39-4 3-Methylphenol

00106-44-5 4-Methylphenol

00072-55-9 4,4 DDE

00057-97-6 7,12-Dimethylbenz(a)anthracene

00064-19-7 Acetic acid

00067-64-1 Acetone

00098-86-2 Acetophenone

00107-13-1 Acrylonitrile

00309-00-2 Aldrin

07439-90-5 Aluminum

07440-36-0 Antimony

07664-41-7 Aqueous ammonia

12672-29-6 Aroclor 1248

07440-38-2 Arsenic

07440-39-3 Barium

00071-43-2 Benzene

00050-32-8 Benzo(a)pyrene

00205-99-2 Benzo(b)fluoranthene

191-24-2 Benzo(ghi)perylene

00207-08-9 Benzo(k)fluoranthene

00100-51-6 Benzyl alcohol

07440-41-7 Beryllium

00111-44-4 Bis(2-Chloroethyl) ether

00117-81-7 Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate / Di (2-ethylhexyl)

You can read the full list, including C – Z, on this comment posted by Bill B, here on StateImpact’s website — to see the rest of the alphabet of fracking flowback components.

To zoom back out from this one terribly toxic and potentially fatal flowback component, into the big picture, we highly recommend reading as much as possible of this special issue of New Solutions, focused entirely on evaluating shale gas impacts:

Special Issue
Guest editors: Robert Oswald and Michelle Bamberger

A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy
Volume 23, No. 1 — 2013

Keep on learning. Keep on speaking up. And whatever you do, ramp up your level of concern and outspokenness on behalf of workers in this industry. Workers are still told “that’s just salty water,” and made to experience lung contact and skin contact with extremely dangerous substances. Workers are bringing that dried flowback home to their families; worker Rick “Mac” Sawyer experienced skin rashes and blackouts — only to find that his family experienced symptoms also, through contact with him and with his clothing.  People should not be made into non-consensual guinea pigs! Speak up!

  1. May 29, 2013 6:35 pm

    Thank you Iris for once again teaching me something I didn’t know. I will pass on this information. Please spread the word that Thursday June 20th Pittsburgh will host a FREE screening of Gasland Part II
    with Josh Fox present to have a Q&A after the film. It’s at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall June 20th 6-10 Thanks

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      May 30, 2013 12:48 pm

      Thanks Briget! Hope the Pittsburgh Gasland II Screening is great and has huge audience. We are also co-sponsoring the Gasland II screening in Trenton on June 15th (4 pm and 7 pm) along with Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other organizations. Gasland website lists all screenings in PA that week, and a place to rsvp.

  2. J. Jonik permalink
    May 29, 2013 8:37 pm

    Just a note about use of the word “chemicals”.  A pure organic tangerine is made of chemicals, as are we.   If what we’re talking about is INDUSTRIAL Chemicals…I think it’s important to always make that distinction when context calls for that.   Chemicals aren’t automatically bad….but un- or under-regulated industrial chems generally are..EVEN if the chems, of course, originated in nature as everything does.   It’s about the use.  – JJ

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      May 30, 2013 12:06 pm

      Thanks, JJ but if you read this article, you’ll notice that it’s not about chemicals. I don’t use the word “chemical” once in this post. (I do quote another person who lists the chemicals present in flowback, for the purpose of showing that beryllium is on the authoritative list of flowback components). This is a post specifically about beryllium. Beryllium is a known carcinogen, causes damage to lungs, liver spleen, etc.; and beryllium fumes and dust are extremely toxic — so the fact that it is showing up in flowback, which workers make contact with and breathe; which spills; which spews into groundwater and evaporates into air — is a problem. Thanks and please share.


  1. Beryllium, one of most toxic substances known, in fracking flowback
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