WHEELING - Breathing only a tiny amount of silica dust per day - enough, roughly, to cover Franklin Delano Roosevelt's nose on a dime - can put a worker at risk for a myriad of health problems, according to Michael Breitenstein of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Research by his agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows many workers at natural gas wells where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, takes place are being exposed to the substance in higher quantities. And according to West Virginia University professor Michael McCawley, the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania - at the heart of Marcellus shale gas development - are seeing some of the nation's highest rates of mortality due to silicosis, a deadly disease that hardens the lungs through inflammation and development of scar tissue.
Breitenstein's and McCawley's presentations were part of a panel discussion on silica exposure at the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association's inaugural ShaleSafe Conference and Expo at Oglebay Park in Wheeling.
"My job is supposed to be to scare you a little bit, because we want to get your attention," McCawley said.
Silica is a primary component of sand, used in large quantities during the fracking process, which breaks up tightly compacted shale and releases the gas for collection. In addition to silicosis, overexposure can lead to lung cancer, kidney problems and autoimmune problems such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Although typically identified as a hazard of the construction industry, silica's effect on natural gas workers has drawn much attention recently, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in the process of developing new limits on worker exposure to the substance for the first time in more than 40 years.
Breitenstein said silica levels tend to spike during periods when fracking is occurring or when sand is being transferred.
"T-belt operators and sand movers, they're in the cloud. They're seeing (silica levels) two, three, four times higher" than OSHA standards, Breitenstein said.
It's not clear when OSHA will make a decision on the proposed new rule, which would set a permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter for silica averaged over an eight-hour period and prevent about 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year, the agency estimates. According to John Keeling of MSES Consultants Inc. of Clarksburg, OSHA's current standard is based on a complicated formula.
"The fact that you don't see anything in the air doesn't mean that there's not a problem," Keeling said. "This is a pretty tight standard."
But such a tight standard is warranted, according to McCawley, whose work in WVU's Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences has delved deep into the effects of silica exposure. Silicosis can take three forms: Acute, which can kill someone in a matter of weeks; accelerated, which usually strikes within five to 10 years from first exposure; and chronic, which can take 10-20 years before symptoms such as persistent cough, coughing up blood, fatigue and loss of appetite begin to present themselves.
For someone with silicosis, McCawley said, breathing is like trying to suck air through a straw while underwater.
"You end up essentially suffocating to death over a decade or two," he said. "It's not a pleasant situation."
Breitenstein said hazard communication is vital in keeping employees safe, as well as personal protective equipment - though the dust often is present in amounts too great to prevent overexposure even if it's worn properly. Vacuum systems can help, too, he said, but the best way to protect employees is to use a substitute for sand in the fracking process - such as manufactured, ceramic-based proppants which are more expensive than sand, but safer.
"In parts of Colorado, they're not using sand for fracking anymore," Breitenstein said. "They're just using water."