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The good news continues for people living near industrial sand facilities, with the release of the second in a pair of studies examining the impact of industrial sand mining on air quality. The researchers found concentrations of the small particles of silica dust that can lead to health problems if present in high concentrations are far below the levels considered harmful.
Industrial sand mining has become a contentious issue in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as the demand for the clean, spherical, crush-resistant sand used for hydraulic fracturing has led to a proliferation of “frac sand mines” across the Upper Midwest.
As the number of industrial sand mines and sand processing facilities operating in Wisconsin jumped from about five mines and five processing plants in 2010 to 63 active mines and 45 processing plants in 2014, people living in communities near these facilities were understandably curious about the potential risks associated with sand mining. Some community members became concerned about silicosis, a serious but preventable lung disease that has historically been an occupational hazard in industries such as construction, sandblasting, and mining.
These concerns were amplified by professional activist groups who released reports heavy on scare and virtually nonexistent on science. These reports used anecdotal evidence, which is subject to cherry-picking and other biases, to introduce readers to the concept of silicosis, but they presented no scientific data quantifying whether there was actually any risk to area residents. As a result, many local residents became unnecessarily concerned for their health.
Fortunately, comprehensive data compiled by one of the most respected air-monitoring scientists in the county demonstrate people living near these facilities are safe from exposure to hazardous levels of these particles.
The lead author of these studies is Dr. John Richards of Air Control Techniques (ACT), whose work is so respected he has contributed to the development of emission test methods for particulate matter that have been accepted and promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the world of air monitoring for small silica dust particles, Richards is a Mick Jagger-level rock star, and the quality of his work and his reputation are beyond reproach.
The study used 657 daily average PM4 crystalline silica measurements, almost two years’ worth of data, and it found the long-term average concentrations measured at seven sampling locations were all only 5–20 percent of the levels considered hazardous by California and Minnesota health officials. That means these facilities pose no threat to public health.
When considering the results of any air monitoring study, the methods for collecting data are just as important as the data itself, because improper procedures produce worthless data.
One of the key reasons this study is so important is because the sampling frequency matched the once-every-third-day and once-every-sixth-day calendar schedule used in the U.S. EPA and state agency air monitoring networks. As result, the data gathered in this study can be compared to federal and state particulate matter datasets to check their validity.
Using data from state agencies and federal agencies, the scientists at ACT were able to compare the concentration of silica dust particles at sand mining facilities to the regional background concentrations of these particles, which are generated from a variety of sources, such as farm fields, dirt roads, and even wind blowing across the ocean from deserts on other continents. The study found the concentrations of respirable crystalline silica dust at the industrial sand facilities were consistent with concentrations of this dust in areas with no sand mining at all, meaning these facilities do not generate harmful levels of this tiny dust.
Industrial sand facilities do not pose a risk to public health—but anxiety does. When irresponsible interest groups promote unscientific “reports” to gin up opposition to mining, they also build up people’s anxiety, which can cause headaches, shortness of breath, and other physical ailments.
For that problem, this air monitoring study is just what the doctor ordered.