Opposition

Doctors condemn as “erroneous” government health report which concluded fracking is low risk

A government report quoted by ministers as reassurance that fracking is safe has been criticised as inadequate and its conclusions unsubstantiated and misleading.

Public Health England concluded last year (October 2013) that the potential health risks from emissions associated with shale gas extraction were low if the operations were properly run and regulated.

But Medact, a charity representing more than 900 health professionals, has said the PHE conclusion is erroneous.

Medact said there is no authoritative and comprehensive assessment of the health risks associated with fracking. It said “the claim of PHE that fracking is safe if properly practised and regulated cannot be substantiated on the basis of the available evidence which is inadequate and incomplete”.

The criticism came in a letter from the director of Medact, Dr David McCoy, to Lancashire County Council. The council’s planning committee is expected to decide in January on two planning applications by Cuadrilla for fracking at up to eight wells in the Fylde area near Blackpool.

Dr McCoy, a former Director of Public Health in London, urged the council to refuse planning permission.

“Under the current circumstances these applications pose unacceptable risks to the health and well-being of local residents. The case against industrial-scale fracking in Lancashire is even stronger.”

He said the PHE report was “inadequate and incomplete; and arrived at an erroneous, unsubstantiated and misleading conclusion”. He also criticised a health impact assessment by the Director of Public Health for Lancashire, commissioned by the county council. This was also incomplete and in parts based on “insufficient analysis and rigour”, he said.

The PHE report is frequently used by supporters of shale gas as evidence that fracking is safe. In the past year, it was quoted by the Health Minister, Jane Ellison and the then Energy Minister, Michael Fallon. It was also referred to in the report on shale gas by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and in the Government response to a report on energy generation by the Welsh Affairs Committee.

Dr McCoy said the scope of the PHE report was too narrow because it was limited to the direct health impacts of fracking from air and water pollution and waste issues.

He said it failed to address:

  • Water sustainability, noise, traffic (apart from vehicle exhaust emissions), odour, visual impact, occupational exposure and wider public health issues
  • Public health impacts of fugitive gas emissions and global warming
  • Specific geological features in the UK such as seismicity and the proximity of shale gas beds to communities, farms and aquifers
  • The impacts of fracking on employment and the local economy

Dr McCoy also said the conclusion was based on the “likely operational practice in the UK and the presumption of effective process management, operation and regulation” but this was not substantiated.

There were “serious gaps and deficiencies in the current system of regulation”, he said, and these suggested that risk would not minimised or harm adequately mitigated.

He added that the risk of fracking pollutants could not be known fully because this depended on a range of factors, including the characteristics of communities, local geology, the operating practice of companies, structural integrity of wells and composition of fracking fluid.

Dr McCoy said pollutants associated with fracking included carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, respiratory irritants and neurological, endocrine and haematological disrupters/toxins.

“While some pollutants are known to have toxic and harmful properties, many have not been adequately studied while others have not been studied at all. Furthermore, while health-based safety standards for some chemicals and radioactive material have been established on the basis of sound empirical data, few of them take account of any ‘cocktail’ effects resulting from simultaneous exposure to multiple hazards”.

Other health impacts that should be considered, Dr McCoy, said included:

  • Noise pollution
  • Heavy traffic
  • Spoilage of natural environment
  • Effects of social and economic disruption

He said there was too little interest in the impacts of fracking on psychological and mental health and its effects on community cohesion through, for example, the temporary influx of large numbers of short-term workers, often from outside the area.

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