Rural Radiation Hazards

A new study from Duke University identifies a mechanism that is causing rural streams to have radiation levels 650x normal.PA topographical map

The culprit: wastewater from oil and natural gas wells. In 2011, Pennsylvania identified fracking as a potential source of this radiation and imposed treatment requirements on wastewater from fracking, but not on wastewater from other forms of drilling.

Researchers from Duke took measurements in three areas in western Pennsylvania between 2014 and 2017, in the towns of Josephine, Creekside and Franklin. These towns are all east and northeast of Pittsburgh, but within roughly 90 minutes driving distance of the city. They found continuing high levels of radiation in all locations despite treatment of wastewater from fracking.

“Despite the fact that conventional oil and gas wastewater is treated to reduce its radium content, we still found high levels of radioactive build-up in the stream sediments we sampled,” Vengosh said. “Radium is attached to these sediments, and over time even a small amount of radium being discharged into a stream accumulates to generate high radioactivity in the stream sediments.”(1)

Clearly, fracking wasn’t the sole cause of the problem, and that raises questions about groundwater pollution in other areas of the US in which convention drilling for oil and gas occurs.

Of course, having deer that glow in the dark could make life easier for drivers and hunters, but I’m not sure how appetizing the venison would be.


  1. Nancy E. Lauer, Nathaniel R. Warner, Avner Vengosh. Sources of Radium Accumulation in Stream Sediments near Disposal Sites in Pennsylvania: Implications for Disposal of Conventional Oil and Gas Wastewater. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b04952
  2. Duke University. “Radioactivity from oil and gas wastewater persists in Pennsylvania stream sediments: Radioactivity in sediments at three disposal sites measured 650 times higher than normal..” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 January 2018. <>.

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