Is there a risk from radiation in the oil industry?

EDITED TO ADD:  The article discussed below appears to be extremely misleading, to judge by comments left by well-informed readers (see below).  In particular, my thanks to commenter Henry for this link to an analysis debunking Rolling Stone’s claims.  It’s a bit technical, but does a pretty good job, IMHO.

Rolling Stone has published an extended article alleging that the brine discharged from many oil drilling operations is highly radioactive, and poses a severe health hazard.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

Tanks, filters, pumps, pipes, hoses, and trucks that brine touches can all become contaminated, with the radium building up into hardened “scale,” concentrating to as high as 400,000 picocuries per gram. With fracking — which involves sending pressurized fluid deep underground to break up layers of shale — there is dirt and shattered rock, called drill cuttings, that can also be radioactive. But brine can be radioactive whether it comes from a fracked or conventional well; the levels vary depending on the geological formation, not drilling method. Colorado and Wyoming seem to have lower radioactive signatures, while the Marcellus shale, underlying Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, has tested the highest. Radium in its brine can average around 9,300 picocuries per liter, but has been recorded as high as 28,500. “If I had a beaker of that on my desk and accidentally dropped it on the floor, they would shut the place down,” says Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist who spent 15 years studying radioactivity with the Department of Energy. “And if I dumped it down the sink, I could go to jail.”

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. And some regulations have only gotten weaker. “Legislators have laid out a careful set of exemptions that allow this industry to exist,” says Teresa Mills of the Buckeye Environmental Network, an Ohio community-organizing group. “There is no protection for citizens at all — nothing.”

In an investigation involving hundreds of interviews with scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and workers, Rolling Stone found a sweeping arc of contamination — oil-and-gas waste spilled, spread, and dumped across America, posing under-studied risks to the environment, the public, and especially the industry’s own employees. There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer.

“Essentially what you are doing is taking an underground radioactive reservoir and bringing it to the surface where it can interact with people and the environment,” says Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear-forensics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Us bringing this stuff to the surface is like letting out the devil,” says Fairlie. “It is just madness.”

There’s more at the link.

I’ve read the entire report, and I strongly urge you to do the same.  It’s of direct and immediate relevance here in north Texas, where many people work in the oil producing areas of the state, commuting back and forth once a month to see their families.  There’s a big oilfield engineering and supply outfit only a few miles from my home, and brine – sourced cheaply, I presume, from oilfield waste products, as mentioned in the Rolling Stone article – is spread on our roads during winter to inhibit ice formation and build-up.

I find it hard to believe that so serious a danger could become so widespread without something having been done about it;  after all, the article points out that DoE staff have been analyzing oilfield radioactivity for years.  Even so, I guess, bureaucratic inertia has been with us for as long as there have been bureaucrats.  I don’t think this is something that can be blamed on any one President or administration, either.  If so much radiation has been around for so long, it must surely have been brought to the attention of the authorities long ago.  Why nothing appears to have been done about it is a question that remains unanswered . . . at least, so far.  However, I’ll bet it goes back to last century, if not all the way back to the Curie family and their investigations into radioactivity.

This can’t be a “new” problem.  It’s got to have been around for as long as oil wells have been drilled.  If that’s the case, why haven’t cases of radiation sickness been more widely encountered in oil workers – much less more widely reported?  And is this only an American oil industry problem?  Is it also encountered in Middle Eastern oil fields, and elsewhere in the world?  If not, why not?

Is the report trustworthy?  I don’t know.  There are many individuals and pressure groups opposed to the use of fossil fuels, and some of them may not be particularly ethical or scrupulous in their use of information – real or fake – to put pressure on that industry.  However, I think there’s certainly enough evidence mentioned in the article, including testing radioactivity levels to which workers are exposed, to warrant a very thorough investigation by the authorities.  I hope it happens quickly, before too many more of us are exposed to this potential danger.



  1. Your last paragraph hits this in center mass. There has been such a history of environmentalists using bogus info to try to scare people that I want to see triple-blind tests confirming this. And then probably another one.

    Science is about repeatability – I want to see repeatability and confirmation in spades before I swallow this.

  2. A picocurie is one times ten to the minus twelve curie. That is one trillionth of a curie. Or said another way, “one millionth of a millionth” curie.

    One curie is about what you would get in an average Nuclear medicine scan. One trillionth would be, well, less than background.

    To put this into a little better perspective, if you reduced the entire Earth down to one trillionth of its size, the result would be smaller than a speck of dust.

    This is nothing more than yet another “OMG! We’re all gonna die!” article from our lying press.

  3. It’s only a few years since there was news about Russian money in the anti-fracking movement and opposition to the Keystone pipeline.

    For example,

    “In an excerpt from a speech in 2014, released by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton said “We were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media. We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you, and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.”

    “The recent report by U.S. intelligence regarding Russian tampering in the 2016 election confirmed that, at least since 2015, Russia has also attempted to delegitimize fracking – through their state-run propaganda channel RT – by running dozens of anti-fracking pieces.”

  4. Pico-curies. 10^-12. 0.000,000,000,001 of one Curie. Typical scaremongering, using tiny units of measure so that the average person has no real concept of scale, then put a ‘big’ number in front to make it look scary.

    Radium is not particularly dangerous unless it is consumed (don’t drink that brine…duh!) or if the decay products are allowed to build up (radon gas), neither of which is a real problem for oilfield workers.

    The actual radiological workers commonly found in the oilfield are in far more danger and are trained accordingly. Fairly high sources are used in lots of testing.

  5. To put it in perspective:

    “The typical human body contains roughly 0.1 μCi (14 mg) of naturally occurring potassium-40. A human body containing 16 kg of carbon (see Composition of the human body) would also have about 24 nanograms or 0.1 μCi of carbon-14. Together, these would result in a total of approximately 0.2 μCi or 7400 decays per second inside the person’s body (mostly from beta decay but some from gamma decay).”

    That is, you naturally have 0.000,000,2 Curies in your body all the time. Or 200,000 picocuries. Naturally. Everyone. All the time. Before you take that first sip of ‘radioactive’ drilling brine.

    To be blunt, just by giving scaremongering articles like this the light of day you are contributing to the hysteria and I recommend you take it down…if for no other reason but to reduce the clicks from your readers who may go over there to read it in full.

  6. Peter:

    Henry (above) has the appropriate answer. The RS article is pure bunk.

    But, if you are still scared, don’t eat any banana cream pie.


  7. So?

    Want to measure radiation? Take a dosemeter with you when you frequent fly. There’s the real hazard. Radiation related illness and disease linked to flying (and astronauting) are increased greatly over the general population.

    But then again, so are radiation-related illnesses and disease from high altitude living people compared to lowlanders.

    But then again, so are radiation-related illnesses and disease from people living in the tropics compared to those who live in more polar climates.

    But then again, so are radiation-related illnesses and diseases from people who work underground compared to those who work above ground.

    But then again, so are radiation-related illnesses and diseases from people who are exposed to sunlight compared to those who aren’t exposed to sunlight.

    Seriously. If you don’t want to be affected by radiation, don’t fly (especially into space) nor live much above sea level and only in temperate or subarctic climates and don’t go in the basement while only going out at night. Voila! You have now protected yourself from most environmental sources of radiation. Enjoy your long, boring life doing nothing.

  8. As others have said, this is scaremongering. They claim to have talked to “hundreds” of people – I bet most of those they talked to were environmentalists or disgruntled (former) oil employees.

    Having said that, there ARE radiation hazards in the oil industry in some situations. For example, in the North Dakota oil fields, certain filtration equipment accumulates radioactivity and places that handle it or may come cross it routinely scan for it.

    I have read, but have not confirmed, that the government requires radioactive traces in all petroleum products sold in the US – the theory is that by using trace amount of various radioactive materials, otherwise anonymous spills can be traced to their source by seeing how much of each material is present. Can anybody confirm this?

  9. Jonathan H, most likely the USGov requires a complete chemical and radiological breakdown of the oil from each field, as each field, and possibly individual sections from a field, will have unique levels of certain substances.

  10. Agree with Borepatch 100%!

    It’s just more twisted, corrupted, taken-out-of-context “data”, with zip to back it up.

    The ecoweenies will not be happy until they’ve entirely destroyed Western Civilization.

  11. It is more communist BS to facilitate the transfer of power; it is always about who obtains and maintains power.

    Everything else is just a sideshow or mechanism to accomplish the goal.

  12. If you live in a home with Granite walls (say in NH), or eat bananas then you have a greater risk than the above mentioned radiation.

    The salt in the brine is more dangerous.

    Peter: you should know better than to believe anything from Rolling Stone. I’ve met you…Yer smarter than that.

  13. I’m a Regional Radiation Safety Officer for my department, for training purposes I have some uranium in a little jar (bought off Amazon, the jar is also where I keep my film badge in the off season). It puts out about 27 nano-curies which is enough to demonstrate my Giger Counter working but that’s about it.

  14. Consider this:I recently took a load of oil field scrap pipe to a wrecking yard in the Abilene Texas area. They have a radiation tester which checks every load. My load was rejected because it set of the alarm for radiation. So perhaps there is some relevance to the RS story after all.

  15. This is right up there with the Mother Jones article exposing the supposed horrid dangers of depleted uranium, which, among other things, is used for shielding in some medical equipment. True enough, it is a chemical hazard in pulverized form, as from expended armor piercing projectiles. There are not a lot of those in most peoples’ hoods.

  16. I worked as a site manager on a greenfields uranium site in Australia until we mothballed it. Since then I’ve worked in various forms in the offshore oil & gas industry. There are NORMs associated with wells, typically dormant ones. This stands for Naturally Occurring radioactive materials. Think mercury. And then we have non-destructive testing which has interesting amounts of radiation.

    But as others have already pointed out, this Rolling Stone article is pure bunkum.

  17. “One curie is about what you would get in an average Nuclear medicine scan.” Sorry but I cannot let this one slide by. No, one curie is NOT what you would get in a Nuc Med scan. Nuc med dosages for scans range from 0.0004 Curies to 0.03 Curies. Source me (nuc med tech X 30 years, clinical instructor, classroom instructor) or any handbook on Nuclear medicine.

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