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Workers at Colorado fracking site exposed to toxic gas

Within the last five years, the U.S. oil and gas industry has exploded. Much of the industry's prosperity is due to the implementation of hydraulic fracking, a controversial process through which natural gas and petroleum are mined from rocks and sand deep beneath the ground. There are, however, many environmental, health and safety concerns related to the fracking process.

Today, nearly half or roughly 280,000 of the men and women who work in the U.S. oil and gas industry work at fracking sites. Today, these sites are cropping up across the U.S. and the rapid growth of the process has many concerned about the long-term environmental and health effects. Of particular concern, is the safety and health of workers who are tasked with measuring the liquids that are derived from fracking during what's known as the flowback phase of the extraction process.

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently raised red flags after discovering that workers responsible for measuring flowback liquids are being exposed to elevated and dangerous levels of the toxic gas benzene.

For the study, NIOSH researchers reviewed air quality samples at two fracking sites, one of which is in Colorado. Sixteen workers were outfitted with devices which measured the air quality and benzene levels when the workers opened the hatches of production tanks to record flowback measurements. Approximately 88 percent of the samples examined contained dangerously elevated benzene levels.

Exposure to high levels of benzene has been linked to the development of cancer and is known to damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system. Benzene exposure is also known to weaken an individual's immune system thereby making one more susceptible to the development of other potentially dangerous infections and diseases.

In response to the study's findings, NIOSH issued recommendations that employers within the oil and gas industry take measures to protect fracking workers from benzene exposure. Employers are encouraged to ensure workers measuring flowback are provided with respirators and that alternative methods to obtain flowback measurements be developed.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Fracking workers exposed to dangerous amounts of benzene, study says," Neela Banerjee, Sept. 11, 2014

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