Soil is an important part of our environment, particularly for people who use their land for farming or gardening. Research shows that toxic substances such as benzene, toluene, other petroleum hydrocarbons, barium, and other toxic substances associated with unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD or “fracking”) can contaminate soil that is close to UOGD. Contamination occurs through wastewater releases, venting, flaring, and other activities. Toxic substances may remain in the soil or travel down or up to create groundwater or air pollution.

How Soil Contamination Affects You

Soil contamination can kill vegetation, sterilize soil, and may harm human and animal health. The most common routes of exposure to soil pollutants are by eating, breathing, and absorbing through the skin. Young children are typically at the highest risk of ingesting soil contaminants because of their frequent hand to mouth behaviors.

Another potential issue is food safety around UOGD (“fracking”) sites. While more research is needed, Pennsylvania farmers and others have voiced concerns that organic compounds, metals, and radioactive materials associated with UOGD are contaminating farmlands and ultimately harming human health. The cycle begins when livestock ingest contaminated grasses, feed, and water; in turn, people are potentially exposed to UOGD-related pollutants by ingesting meat or milk from affected animals. 

Food safety is also in question when farmers use oilfield wastewater to irrigate food crops, as is happening is drought-stricken California. Researchers are currently working to determine if the practice is safe.

What You Can Do 

If you are concerned about the quality of your soil, you can take simple steps to protect your health:

  • Contact EHP for help: Our Public Health Nurse serves the needs of both adults and children whose health may be affected by UOGD (“fracking”). She is available by appointment for both home and office visits and makes referrals to appropriate health specialists on an as needed basis. Please visit our Health Issues page for more information.
  • Test your soil, especially in areas where children play or food is grown. Read more about soil testing in our Want to Learn More?
  • Build raised beds to grow any foods you will eat.
  • Wear gloves when handling soil.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly and remove outer leaves before eating.
  • Remove shoes upon entering your residence to reduce the spread of contamination.

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Photo by Ted Auch. Morrow Co. Ohio Fishburn Walter Class II Well. Sept 2015. Provided by The FracTracker Alliance on