Identifying sources of concern and risk from shale gas development, particularly from the hydraulic fracturing process, is an important step in better understanding sources of uncertainty within the industry. In this study, a risk assessment of residential exposure pathways to contaminated drinking water is carried out. In this model, it is assumed that a drinking water source is contaminated by a spill of flowback water; probability distributions of spill size and constituent concentrations are fit to historical datasets and Monte Carlo simulation was used to calculate a distribution of risk values for two scenarios: (1) use of a contaminated reservoir for residential drinking water supply and (2) swimming in a contaminated pond. The swimming scenario did not produce risks of concern from a single exposure of 1 h duration, but 11 such 1-h exposures did produce risks of 10−6
due to radionuclide exposure. The drinking water scenario over a 30-year exposure duration produced cancer risk values exceeding 10−6
for arsenic, benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, heptachlor, heptachlor epoxide, pentachlorophenol, and vinyl chloride. However, this extended exposure duration is probably not realistic for exposure by a spill event. Radionuclides produced risks in the residential drinking water scenario of 10−6
in just 8 h, a much more realistic timeline for continual exposure due to a spill event. In general, for contaminants for which inhalation exposure was applicable, this pathway produced the highest risks with exposure from ingestion posing the next greatest risk to human health followed by dermal absorption (or body emersion for radionuclides). Considering non-carcinogenic effects, only barium and thallium exceed target limits, where the ingestion pathway seems to be of greater concern than dermal exposure. Exposure to radionuclides in flowback water, particularly through the inhalation route, poses a greater threat to human health than other contaminants examined in this assessment and should be the focus of risk assessment and risk mitigation efforts.
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