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Hazard Alert: Hydraulic Fracturing Silica Dust is Dangerous

PHOTO: Silica dust by worker conducting sand transfer operations. Photo credit: NIOSH
PHOTO: Silica dust by worker conducting sand transfer operations. Photo credit: NIOSH
June 26, 2012

LOGAN, Utah - A federal study of the use of silica in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas fields found that workers are sometimes overexposed to silica dust, which can lead to silicosis. It's a disease that reduces the lungs' ability to absorb oxygen. Silica can also cause lung cancer, according to a new Hazard Alert issued by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist who is assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, says hazardous silica dust exposure has to be prevented.

"There are ways to control exposure, to limit the amount of silica that gets in the air in fracking operations, so workers don't breathe this dangerous dust."

Workers can be protected to some extent by wearing respirators, but OSHA notes that respirators can't block 100 percent of the dust when levels are high.

Dr. Michaels says the next step is to make sure all are doing their parts to keep workers safe.

"We've been very gratified to be able to work with the oil and gas industry, and with a number of unions, to put together some materials to get the word out, so employers follow the law, which means reducing silica exposures."

Several companies are looking at doing away with silica, using ceramics instead.

The alert is at 1.usa.gov/LwoE5l.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - UT