Risk Analysis

Bounding Analysis of Drinking Water Health Risks from a Spill of Hydraulic Fracturing Flowback Water

Journal Article


A bounding risk assessment is presented that evaluates possible human health risk from a hypothetical scenario involving a 10,000‐gallon release of flowback water from horizontal fracturing of Marcellus Shale. The water is assumed to be spilled on the ground, infiltrates into groundwater that is a source of drinking water, and an adult and child located downgradient drink the groundwater. Key uncertainties in estimating risk are given explicit quantitative treatment using Monte Carlo analysis. Chemicals that contribute significantly to estimated health risks are identified, as are key uncertainties and variables to which risk estimates are sensitive. The results show that hypothetical exposure via drinking water impacted by chemicals in Marcellus Shale flowback water, assumed to be spilled onto the ground surface, results in predicted bounds between 10−10 and 10−6 (for both adult and child receptors) for excess lifetime cancer risk. Cumulative hazard indices (HICUMULATIVE) resulting from these hypothetical exposures have predicted bounds (5th to 95th percentile) between 0.02 and 35 for assumed adult receptors and 0.1 and 146 for assumed child receptors. Predicted health risks are dominated by noncancer endpoints related to ingestion of barium and lithium in impacted groundwater. Hazard indices above unity are largely related to exposure to lithium. Salinity taste thresholds are likely to be exceeded before drinking water exposures result in adverse health effects. The findings provide focus for policy discussions concerning flowback water risk management. They also indicate ways to improve the ability to estimate health risks from drinking water impacted by a flowback water spill (i.e., reducing uncertainty).

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