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Environmental Concerns of Anionic Polyacrylamides Used in Drilling Applications

Before the environmental concerns surrounding anionic polyacrylamides can be properly addressed, first there should be some clarification as to what ‘environmental concerns’ actually means. Typically three different properties collectively determine the environment friendliness of a product. These are bioaccumulation, biotoxicity and biodegradability. Bioaccumulation refers to the increase in concentration of a material in an organism over time. An example of bioaccumulation would be the reported recent increase in mercury levels in oysters. Biotoxicity refers to the substance’s ability to be lethal to an organism. Lastly, biodegradability refers the process whereby a substance is broken down by enzymatic action of bacteria. In other words, the product becomes a food source for bacteria. Products that biodegrade usually are naturally occurring or natural products that have undergone further refinement and processing. Anionic polyacrylamides are totally synthetic. The critical property of anionic polyacrylamides is the molecular weight of the polymers typically used in drilling applications. They are significantly higher than natural or slightly modified polymers such as starches and cellulosics. The shear size of these anionic polyacrylamides prevents them from crossing the membranes of the walls of organisms and entering the tissues and cells. For this reason they simply do not (or rather, cannot) bioaccumulate. The biotoxicity of a product is determined by performing LC50 testing. This test determines the concentration of a product that is lethal to 50% of the test animals. For land drilling applications and to determine effects should the product enter a lake, stream or other waterway, Acute Aquatic Toxicity testing is performed. Usually the test animals involve a special species of a water flea (to represent animals without backbones) and flathead minnows (to represent animals with backbones). The testing protocols are established by the U.S. EPA. Generally speaking, the threshold limit is 1000 mg/ L. If the LC50 concentration is greater than 1000 mg/L, then the product is considered non-toxic. All the anionic polyacrylamide polymers M-I SWACO sells adhere to the above criteria. They do not bioaccumulate and they have fresh water acute aquatic toxicity LC50 values greater than 1000 mg/L. Lastly, they do not readily biodegrade. It is for that reason they are permitted for use in drilling water wells. Biodegradable polymers are essentially forbidden for use in water well drilling because of their ability, by definition, to support bacterial growth. Lastly, specific soil conditions can play a role in initiating chemical degradation of the polymer backbones of anionic polyacrylamide polymers. Once the polymer backbone is adequately broken down, then the potential exists for bacteria to initiate their enzymatic breakdown. However, this process can take anywhere from months to years. In summary, anionic polyacrylamides are safe, non-toxic, environmentally friendly polymers that do not bioaccumulate and do not readily biodegrade.