Could Marcellus Shale Fracking Release Radon into Your Home?

Learn about the link between the Marcellus Shale, fracking, and high radon levels in Pennsylvania homes.


What is Marcellus Shale Radon?

Radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas that is naturally produced when radioactive elements in soil, rock and water breaks down.  The Marcellus Shale in northeastern Pennsylvania has higher than average levels of uranium and thorium. These elements break down to form radium-226.

Radioactivity in shale is not unusual. Almost all rocks have traces of radioactive elements. However, the natural radioactivity of the Marcellus Shale is twenty times higher than in most shales. The natural radioactivity is high enough that drilling companies are able to use radiation detectors to locate Marcellus Shale deposits.


How Does Fracking Release Radon?

There are high amounts of radioactive elements in the rock cuttings produced in Marcellus Shale drilling operations, as well as in the flowback of hydraulic fracturing fluid.  As gas companies recycle their fracking water, the radon producing radioactivity continues to increase. The radioactive elements can be released into the environment if water or rock cuttings are improperly stored or disposed of.

Radioactive elements are also found in pipe scale, brine filtrates, and other sludges associated with drilling.


Is Fracking Radon Dangerous?

Any activity that exposes people to Marcellus Shale rocks increases the risk of exposure to cancer-causing radon. While any exposure to radon gas is dangerous, radon tends to be more harmful indoors than outdoors. This is because radon gas can accumulate in poorly ventilated building. In In Onondaga County, NY, where the Marcellus Shale lies close to the surface, basement radon levels average about 9 picocuries per liter (pCi/L); this is almost 7 times the national average of 1.3 pCi/L. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners take steps to reduce radon when levels are above 4 pCi/L.  However, even a level of 2 pCi/L is enough to significantly increase cancer risk.


Is Anything Being Done to Protect Workers and Pennsylvania Residents From Fracking Radon

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is looking into radon levels in natural gas as part of a study of radiation associated oil and gas production. The study will investigate radiation levels at Marcellus Shale drilling sites by measuring radioactivity in ambient air, drill cuttings, natural gas, gas processing pipes and equipment, fracking waste water, sludge from the processing of waste water, and landfill leachate.

The study was commissioned after a New York Times investigation found that radioactive waste water from fracking was being improperly disposed of in Pennsylvania rivers and streams. Results have not yet been published. However, the state does not believe that radon exposure is a danger to the public.


Should I worry?

Our fracking injury lawyers believe there are too many unknowns. Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and can contribute to cancer in smokers. If you live near a Marcellus Shale drilling site, we recommend that you read our article “Fracking and Radon Risk: Should You Test Your Home?” to learn how you can measure radon gas in your home or workplace and how you can reduce high radon levels. If you work at a drilling site, talk to your employer about radon exposure. If you breathe air containing radon, you can get lung cancer.