Last week RAFF and representatives from other Frack Free Lancashire groups met up with three activists from New York State (NYS). This was a valuable meeting because at the end of last year NYS imposed a moratorium on fracking based on the risks to public health. Coincidentally, here in the UK, Medact has just published its report, Health & Fracking: the impacts & opportunity costs, which concludes that “hydraulic fracturing for shale gas poses significant risks to public health and calls for an immediate moratorium to allow time for a full and comprehensive health and environmental impact assessment (HIA) to be completed.” The advice from the American activists is to push this report to highlight the health risks of fracking in the UK. A copy has been sent to all councillors on the Lancashire County Council Development and Control Committee, who will shortly be considering the applications for Preston New Road (Little Plumpton) and Roseacre Wood. MEDACT represents health professionals who aim to educate, analyse and campaign for global health on issues related to conflict, poverty and the environment. The report is a 34-page, well researched, document prepared by medical professionals. It’s well worth reading and provides compelling reasons why fracking should not be allowed to go ahead.
Dr David McCoy, Director of Medact said:
“Today, Medact, alongside a wider group of health professionals, has called for a moratorium on fracking because of the serious risks it poses to public health. Fracking has already been suspended in Wales and Scotland because of health and climate risks and New York State has banned fracking because of the ‘significant health risks’.”
The report highlights the limitations of Public Health England’s report on fracking, including the fact that it was narrow in scope and failed to critically assess the adequacy and reliability of the regulatory system.
Working with various experts in energy policy and climate change, Medact’s report also describes how shale gas produces a level of GHG emissions that is incompatible with the UK’s commitments to address climate change.”
The United Kingdom (UK) is presently set to expand ‘hydraulic fracturing’ of shale formations (‘fracking’) as a means of extracting unconventional gas. Proponents of fracking have argued that it can be conducted safely and will bring benefits in the form of: a) energy that is cleaner in climate terms than coal and oil; b) greater energy security; c) lower energy prices; d) more energy diversity and competition; and e) local employment and economic development. However, fracking has proven to be controversial and there are serious concerns about its safety and impact on the environment.
This report reviews fracking and its associated activities through a comprehensive public health lens. It examines the direct and immediate effects of fracking on health; the adequacy and capacity of the regulatory system; and the relationship between fracking and climate change.
It builds on a number of existing reviews of the evidence and interviews with various academics and experts (in the UK and abroad). Medact also requested short papers in particular subject areas to inform the production of this report. Given that much of the literature about fracking has been derived from experience in the United States (US), this report also highlights the specific features of the UK that need to be considered.
Fracking and its risks and threats
The word ‘fracking’ is used to denote high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) and related activities. It describes a relatively new technology that is not to be confused with other forms of hydraulic fracturing that have been in use for decades. The term ‘unconventional’ describes the fact that the gas embedded in shale formations does not flow out as easily as in the case of conventional sources of gas. To extract unconventional gas, the shale needs to be fractured (or pulverised) by large volumes of fluid (water combined with various additives) injected into the ground under high pressures.
In doing so, fracking and its associated activities create multiple actual and potential sources of pollution. Leaks of gas can occur across the entire process of extraction, treatment, storage and transportation. There are also emissions from diesel engines, compressors and heavy transport vehicles; as well as the potential release of silica into the air. Oxides of nitrogen, hydrogen sulphide, formaldehyde, benzene, ethylene, toluene, particulate matter and ground-level ozone are among the more significant airborne health hazards. Surface and ground water can also be contaminated by gas, fracking fluid, or wastewater which consists of original fracking fluid combined with a range of new materials generated from underground (including lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium; and naturally occurring radioactive material).
The health effects of these different hazards vary depending on the type and pattern of human exposure. But they include increased risks of cancer, respiratory disease and birth defects.
Shale gas development involves continuous activity conducted over a sustained period of time for the entire course of a day, seven days a week. Noise (from compressors, generators, drilling and heavy trucks); light pollution; bad odours; and heavy traffic can cause distress and negative health impacts on nearby communities, especially in the context of quiet rural and semi-rural areas.
The introduction of a temporary and intensive extractive industry will also disrupt and divide the social fabric of local communities, compounding both the mental and physical effects of other hazards. When conducted on an industrial scale, it will also alter the character and aesthetic of the local area and potentially affect wildlife and biodiversity as well.
Although fracking may bring local benefits in the form of new jobs and increased revenue, it can harm other economic sectors such as leisure and tourism; and affect the value of nearby homes. It is worth noting that employment generation associated with shale gas in the US has been over-stated and that initial economic booms often transform into long-term social and economic declines.