Harvard scientists have found that fracking is associated with greatly increased radioactive particulate in the air, especially in West Virginia’s dependent petrochemical economy. People who live within about 12 miles of fracking sites are at the highest risk, with ambient radiation as high as 40 percent over the background level.

The data comes from 17 years of measurements at over 150 radiation monitoring sites. Scientists examined these measurements, combined with the location data on more than 120,000 fracking wells. While experts have known fracking can release chemicals into the groundwater in particular, this is the first study to analyze radiation levels.

Fracking may be a lot of things, but the idea that it’s literally radioactive could be surprising. The reason is that a lot of underlying rock contains small amounts of uranium, for example, as part of the naturally occurring bedrock found all over Earth. Where conventional mining adds safety precautions and traditional oil drilling doesn’t interact with bedrock the same way, fracking has gone a third way that pulverizes the bedrock and releases the uranium.

The study refers to fracking by a technical name: unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).

“As of 2017, over 120,000 onshore UOGD wells had been drilled via a practice involving directional drilling combined with multistage high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking),” the researchers explain in the paper. “Meanwhile, numerous controversies have arisen, partially due to the potential harmful impacts on the local environment, and on the health of nearby residents.”

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