Is my water supposed to be on fire?

In recent years, people have occasionally called attention to methane in their tap water. Since methane is flammable, one of the most common and eye-catching ways people test for it is to simply hold an open flame by the water and see if it ignites.

(Disclaimer: Fire is a risky element to toy with and we strongly urge the reader not to try this at home)
Of course, seeing water on fire is shocking to many people, so it makes the situation understandably alarming; but how does it get in the water in the first place?  And how dangerous is it to people who drink it?

There appears to be a correlation with nearby fracking. For those who don't know, fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a process in which people drill into rock and then forcefully inject water, sand and other chemicals in order to force out trapped natural gas and petroleum. The process is already controversial due to environmental concerns about emissions, large amounts of water used, unwanted chemicals, and other risks.   People setting tap water on fire, then, has definitely called attention to the issue of chemicals escaping into the nearby drinking supply. However, the issue is not necessarily always due to the fracking chemicals, as some fear. The drilling itself can open unexpected cracks for methane to seep through the ground to the surface, a process known as methane migration. This issue seems to happen occasionally even without drilling activity.

So what risks does this pose directly to people? Thus far, studies haven't shown a direct health risk from small doses of methane. In very high concentrations in the air, the methane can displace oxygen and lead to asphyxiation. Some calculations suggest that at the concentrations shown, compared with average daily drinking water consumption, the concentrations of methane in the air due to tap water contamination is negligible.

The quantities in the air may not pose an immediate risk, but there should definitely be more research into long-term effects of methane consumption on health.  I doubt anybody really likes the idea of drinking a combustible chemical with their water.  Whether or not one supports or denounces fracking, we should also investigate safety standards to ensure undesirable chemicals aren't seeping into places we don't want them.

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