Fracking concernsCompounds in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing can take weeks or longer to break down in agricultural topsoil.Photo Courtesy of: bizoo_n/iStock/Thinkstock The use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has grown rapidly in the U.S. over the past 15 years—but concerns persist that the oil and gas extraction method could harm the environment and people's health. To better understand its potential effects, scientists simulated what would happen to the wastewater produced by the technique after a spill. They published their findings in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

This spring, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that hydraulic fracturing accounts for two-thirds of the country's natural gas production. Customers have benefited from lower gas bills, but the technique's growth comes with some risks. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission received reports of 838 spills that released a total of more than 660,000 gallons of fluids associated with fracking in 2014. Since hydraulic fracturing and, potentially, any associated spills often occur near agricultural land, Jens Blotevogel, Thomas Borch and colleagues wanted to find out whether compounds in the wastewater biodegrade or stick around in the soil where they might be taken up by crops.

Related Article: Researchers Show Fracking's Impact to Drinking Water Sources

The researchers tested the fates of three common hydraulic fracturing additives in agricultural topsoil. The surfactant polyethylene glycol completely degraded within 42 to 71 days. But the surfactant did not break down when combined with another hydraulic fracturing additive called a biocide at a salt concentration typical for wastewater produced during oil and gas extraction. The researchers say their findings highlight the need for further testing to better understand spills' potential effects on crops and the environment.

The authors acknowledge funding from Colorado State University and by the Borch-Hoppess Fund for Environmental Contaminant Research.

“Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions” Environmental Science & Technology