Interview with Dusty Horwitt on PFAS Precursors in Oil and Gas Extraction

Updated: Aug 5

After Physicians for Social Responsibility released Fracking with Forever Chemicals and hosted the informative webinar Exposé on Use in Fracking of Previously Unknown, Highly Dangerous Chemicals, PSR PA Medical Advocacy Director, Tammy Murphy had an opportunity to ask the report’s author, Dusty Horwitt some pointed follow up questions. Here is the result of this exclusive and enlightening exchange:


Tammy Murphy: With PFAS so common in everyday products, will you please clarify and summarize how and why, how, and for whom its presence in the unconventional gas development industry is especially dangerous?

Dusty Horwitt: Evidence indicating the use of PFAS and/or PFAS precursors in oil and gas extraction was first publicized in PSR’s report released in July 2021. Therefore, it is likely that little is known about the extent or severity of exposure to PFAS related to this use because many scientists and regulators have not known that this use was occurring and could not have studied it. (It is possible that internal drilling or chemical industry studies exist similar to those that Dupont and 3M conducted on PFOA and PFOS decades before these studies became public. But PSR is not aware of such studies.)

Due to PFAS’ high toxicity, its persistence, and the fact that it bioaccumulates inside people, PSR is concerned that exposure to PFAS through pathways related to oil and gas extraction could pose a health risk. Health effects linked to PFAS include low-birth weight babies, effects on the immune system, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease (over- or under-production of hormones by the thyroid gland), high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia (a potentially dangerous complication during pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys), and ulcerative colitis (a disease causing inflammation and ulcers in the large intestine or colon). In addition, PSR is concerned that exposure to PFAS through oil and gas extraction could add to the total exposure to PFAS from other pathways including through stain- and water-resistant fabric, fast-food wrappers, and fire-fighting foam. Such exposure to PFAS could also add to people’s total exposure to toxic chemicals associated with oil and gas extraction including exposure to carcinogens benzene and radium. The combination of these exposures could intensify negative health impacts.

Because the apparent use of PFAS and PFAS precursors in oil and gas extraction has just been publicized and is largely unknown, it is especially important that regulators and scientists identify where PFAS has been used in both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations, so that the public can be informed and protected. The use of PFAS may not be limited to unconventional oil and gas extraction or to fracking. Scientific publications suggest that PFAS have been used for decades in a variety of drilling industry applications including drilling that precedes fracking, in waterflooding, and as tracers.

Tammy Murphy: Is PFAS used in horizontal directional drilling for pipelines such as Line 3 or Mariner East pipelines?

Dusty Horwitt: It is unclear. A paper published in 2020, and referenced in PSR’s recent report on PFAS use in oil and gas operations, states that PFAS have at least been proposed for use in drilling fluids. See https://www.rsc.org/suppdata/d0/em/d0em00291g/d0em00291g1.pdf (p. 50 and subsequent pages). But the section implies that the use is for drilling oil and gas production wells rather then for pipelines because there is no reference to ‘pipelines’ in the section and ‘drilling’ in oil and gas terminology is usually associated with production. In addition, on page 254 it says that PFAS have at least been proposed for use in ‘detection of leaks in cables, pipelines, landfill waste and underground storage tanks.’

Tammy Murphy: Where can residents have water tested once a sample is obtained?

Dusty Horwitt: A note of caution: I had trouble finding a lab to test fracking wastewater from the Marcellus/Utica because at least two labs did not want to accept wastewater with likely high levels of radium. In addition, two scientists recommended against testing fracking wastewater for PFAS because fracking chemicals are likely to emerge from wells only in the initial production of wastewater. Subsequent production of wastewater is unlikely to contain PFAS or other fracking chemicals. Therefore, to detect the presence of any fracking chemicals in wastewater, scientists would have to test the precise batch of wastewater most likely to contain these chemicals. Otherwise, they might miss the chemicals even though the chemicals might be in the wastewater.


Testing of water that is not drilling/fracking wastewater might be easier. Some labs that residents might want to consult that were recommended to me include EMSL in Cinnaminson, NJ; SGS that has an office in Rutherford, NJ; Galbraith in Knoxville, TN; and Eurofins that has an office in Buffalo/Syracuse, NY.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan PFAS Action Act of 2021. Among other things, the act would require the EPA to create a website that would offer guidance for household well water testing including 'a list of laboratories that analyze water samples and are certified by a State or the Administrator.' The bill will now be considered by the U.S. Senate.

Tammy Murphy: What is an overall term that could help us to identify any thing that contains PFAS, or any variant of it?


Dusty Horwitt: I would suggest looking for word fragments including “fluor” or “fluoro” in chemical names and then checking with some of the experts named in our report to see if they believe that the chemicals are PFAS. One of the experts[, Wilma Subra, wrote] TOLD ME that “The components of PFAS, PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHXS, PFBS and PFHPA consist of: Perfluoro; Polyfluoro; Fluoro; Octane; Alkyl Chain; Sulfonic Acid; Nanoic Acid; Heptanoic Acid; Butanes; Ctanoic Acid; Surfactant; and Hexane.


So, these might [in] be some other terms to look for. I would also suggest searching for a particular chemical in EPA’s Master List of PFAS substances at https://comptox.epa.gov/dashboard/chemical_lists/pfasmaster.

If you have further questions about the topic of the use PFAS in the unconventional gas development industry, please share your questions with Tammy Murphy at tammy@psrpa.org.

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