ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University researchers have found that the chemical makeup of wastewater generated by “hydrofracking” could cause the release of tiny particles in soils that often strongly bind heavy metals and pollutants, exacerbating the environmental risks during accidental spills, according to a press release.

Previous research has shown 10 to 40 percent of the water and chemical solution mixture injected at high pressure into deep rock strata, surges back to the surface during well development, noted the release.  

Scientists at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying the environmental impacts of this “flowback fluid” found that the same properties that make it so effective at extracting natural gas from shale can also displace tiny particles that are naturally bound to soil, causing associated pollutants such as heavy metals to leach out, stated the release.

The particles they studied are colloids — larger than the size of a molecule but smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye — which cling to sand and soil due to their electric charge.

They described the mechanisms of this release and transport in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.