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Minimizing Potential Hazards

In areas where hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations take place repeated reports of water contamination have been brought forward. Scientists of Helmholtz Zentrum München have now published an analysis of the disclosed fracking additives and potential hazards in the journal Environmental Science & Technology of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The scientists explain why full disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking processes is of vital importance.

Dr. Martin Elsner, Kathrin Hölzer / Source: HMGU

Many of the chemicals that are used to extract oil and gas from geologic formations are harmless. Some, however, are toxic and carcinogenic. Public debates on the risks to human health therefore often focus on fracking additives. A systematic overview which chemicals are typically used, however, has been missing. “Transparency is the proper approach to assess and limit these risks,” said Dr. Martin Elsner, head of the research unit Environmental Organic Isotope Chemistry (EOIC) of the Institute of Groundwater Ecology (IGOE) at Helmholtz Zentrum München.

Compilation and evaluation of chemicals

The systematic, quantitative survey which the scientists have now published provides a fact-based approach to consider all of the chemicals disclosed in hydraulic fracturing and to classify them with regard to their hazardous potential. Substances of potential concern include petroleum hydrocarbons (solvents), precursors of endocrine disruptors like nonylphenols, propargyl alcohol (corrosion inhibitor), tetramethylammonium (clay stabilizer), biocides and strong oxidants.

Disclosure of all substances used

Together with his PhD student Kathrin Hölzer and collaboration partners at Duke and Yale universities in the U.S., Elsner has published several papers on this subject. “A full disclosure of the composition of all chemical substances used can help to improve fracking operations and make them safer,” said Hölzer. “Most importantly, an assessment can be made regarding which new compounds can form from underground chemical reactions. The reason is that even additives which are initially nontoxic may potentially transform into harmful substances when they react with substances that are already present in the deep subsurface. “In addition to having information about the initial substances, it is crucial to systematically consider these naturally occurring compounds in the underground deposits that mix with the fluids,” said Elsner. “In this way we can target potential hazards proactively and increase the safety of our groundwater by counteracting the pollution of drinking water due to chemicals.”

Further information

Original-Publikation: M. Elsner and K. Hölzer (2016): “Quantitative Survey and Structural Classification of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals Reported in Unconventional Gas Production”. Environmental Science and Technology, 50 ;

Further pblications:

B. D. Drollette et al. (2016): Elevated levels of diesel range organic compounds in groundwater near Marcellus gas operations are derived from surface activities; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015) pp 13184–13189;

G. J. Getzinger et al. (2016): Natural Gas Residual Fluids: Sources, Endpoints and Organic Chemical Composition after Centralized Waste Treatment in Pennsylvania; Environmental Science & Technology, 49 (2015); pp 8347–8355,

M. Elsner et al. (2016): Comment on the German Draft Legislation on Hydraulic Fracturing: The Need for an Accurate State of Knowledge and for Independent Scientific Research, Environ. Sci. Technol., 49 (2015), pp 6367–6369, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b01921

As Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The Institute of Groundwater Ecology (IGOE) focuses on the processes of self-cleaning and the transport of harmful substances in groundwater. The principle aim is to investigate the microbial processes that lead to self-cleaning of groundwater and thus contribute to preserving our most important source of drinking water. IGOE belongs to the Department of Environmental Sciences. 

TheResearch Unit Environmental Organic Isotope Chemistry investigates the degradation of chemicals in the environment. The analysis of stable isotopes is used to assess the behavior of organic substances in complex systems and to characterize metabolic fluxes in humans.