Fracking is probably most associated with concerns about water contamination, due in no small part to the seemingly endless videos of people being able to light their tap water on fire. But one of the biggest concerns with fracking is actually how the process affects air quality in the areas where drilling is occurring.

“Fracking moved the oil patch to people’s backyards, significantly increasing the pollution they breathed in small towns,” says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Basically, it industrialized rural regions, and brought them many of the related health problems we were used to seeing in cities.” (Solotaroff, 2015)

How does fracking pollute the air?

There are a number of ways in which fracking leads to poor air quality.

  1. Vehicle emissions

The sheer amount of diesel trucks operating in the area is in and of itself a health concern. Diesel exhaust and vehicle emissions have always been a major source of pollution in their own right.

  1. Well emissions

Oil isn’t the only thing that comes up from the ground. Other fumes and emissions come with it. You’ve probably seen pictures before of flames shooting out the top of an oil rig and been curious as to why it was on fire. It was actually on fire by design: oil companies were burning off the natural gas fumes that come up from the ground alongside the oil, which weren’t profitable enough to capture.

Many fracking operations capture the natural gas as well; it all depends on how economical it is for them to do so. We simply use this example as an illustration of how many other things come up from the ground besides what is being drilled for. Every well spews its own emissions; not just natural gas but other potentially toxic gases. We don’t see them when they aren’t on fire, but every well is spewing these gases into the atmosphere on a constant basis.

  1. Evaporation ponds

This is where trucks haul all the toxic wastewater that is used as a byproduct of fracking. This water contains a slurry of toxic chemicals. What precisely it contains is anyone’s guess, because frackers hide behind patent laws that allow them to keep from disclosing what’s in these sludges.

The fact that they go to such great lengths to keep this a secret is indication that it must be pretty bad.

So as these ponds of toxic chemical solvents evaporate, where do you think all those chemical vapors go? You guessed it: right up into the air your children breathe. Once airborne, the solvents from these pits can travel for miles. If you have a number of wells in the area feeding a number of these evaporation ponds, then it’s basically like filling a humidifier with chemicals and then sticking it inside a room. The whole area can become blanketed in a toxic cloud of gases.

Air quality around fracking sites

All these things can add up to very poor air quality. As Paul Solotaroff writes, “For decades, experts believed that life-threatening smog occurred only in or near big cities.” (ibid, p. 54) Fracking is quickly proving this conventional wisdom wrong. Some places have seen their ozone rise to levels that rival the worst summer days in New York City or Los Angeles, and particulate matter as bad as that of Mexico City, where children are assigned gas masks to wear to school. Cold weather days can be especially bad, because the air tends to just sit there without moving around much.