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A community effort for cleaner air

| Sydney Flottum

Hydraulic fracture sand mining has been a hot button issue in Wisconsin since 2009, when a “fracking” operation in Colorado led to a marked increase in national oil production. Western Wisconsin is known to have high-quality silica sand deposits lying just below our feet, and now, companies are pursuing these reserves with renewed vigor.

Wisconsin’s silica sand is made of nearly-pure quartz that has very durable, uniformly-shaped grains perfect for the frac mining process. Mining of this valuable sand can produce large economic gains for miners and property owners and create more energy for a community, but it also leads to the destruction of habitat space, extensive use of water resources, increased road traffic, and light and noise pollution.

There are some questions related to health concerns as well, mainly as to whether or not inhalation of particulates, including silica, will lead to respiratory problems. The process of mining, washing, sorting, transporting, and storing the sand can cause crystalline sand particulates to be released into the air. It is uncertain whether there are enough of these particulates to be a cause for concern, and there is little to no formal research on the amount of airborne particulates near fracture sand mining operations; however, miners and locals near these operations have reported cases of scarring of the lungs and silicosis. It is hypothesized that these particulates are so small that they cannot easily be seen by the human eye, making them virtually undetectable to citizens; their size allows them to linger in an airborne state for long periods of time. “The stuff that you can see doesn’t hurt you,” says Dr. Boulter, “It’s the microscopic particles that are of concern.” Once inhaled, these particulates become lodged in a person’s respiratory system and are nigh impossible to remove. Oftentimes, symptoms go unnoticed until the damage is irreversible in diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer, documented in occupational exposure settings.


The DNR does not have the resources to measure amounts of airborne silica sand particulates. Because of this, concerned citizens must rely on information scattered all across the internet to try to understand the risks to their health and wellbeing. Fortunately, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Watershed Institute is looking to fill this important information gap. Dr. Crispin Pierce, Dr. James Boulter and team of student researchers are testing the role of air quality monitors for community use.

This team is measuring particulate and silica levels around frac sand operations in Wisconsin to assess potential health risks, using a variety of air quality monitors. The goal of this project is to find the best kind of monitor for general community use, in the hopes that citizens will be able to detect when they are most at risk. “The element of community involvement is intriguing and exciting,” says Dr. Boulter. “Most scientific research on this topic is not accessible to the general public. In fact, science is not doing very well in the public sphere lately. So we asked ourselves: what does it mean to do science in a different way? And the answer was, involve the community.”

By involving the community, the researchers hope to reduce, and even eliminate, the gap between science and everyday life to make information more accessible to the public. Once people understand the risks and benefits of frac sand mining operations, they will be better suited to vote on legislation and elect officials to represent their best interests.

Already, the project has received enormous support—both within the community and from outside sources. The team was granted $10,000 to collaborate with the University of Iowa for further research. Additionally, they’ve entered into a $10,000 contract with the Township Board of Cook’s Valley, WI to monitor the air quality at three nearby mining sites, which contain two mines and one processing plant. The Eau Claire community, however, has turned out to be the largest benefactor for the project, with donated funds exceeding $65,000—a tremendous and unprecedented amount, all of which will be put towards purchasing monitors to assess potential health risks throughout Wisconsin.

These research efforts are helping UW-Eau Claire students as well. “We are providing an opportunity for students to learn how to measure air quality and present their findings,” says Dr. Pierce. “This is extremely valuable experience for them, and it’s important to the Environmental Public Health program’s goals.”

Keep your eyes peeled for their findings in print; the team’s research has been accepted for publication in print in the Journal of Environmental Health November 2015 issue.