Encouraging fracking is unsafe and irresponsible, according to a new report, which concludes that the biggest health threat from shale gas is its contribution to global climate change.
The findings, from the London-based health charity, Medact, updated research released in April last year. That said significant and unavoidable health hazards were linked to shale gas production and they were a risk to the wellbeing of local communities.
The latest report, published this morning, was based on a review of recent evidence and a public health assessment of unconventional shale gas production in England.
The lead author, Dr David McCoy, said:
“The biggest threat posed by shale gas is via global warming.
“Shale gas not only produces carbon dioxide upon combustion but is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas in its own right.
“Global warming poses a potentially catastrophic threat. Given the recent and alarming trend of rising atmospheric methane concentrations, as well as the disturbing changes we are seeing with the world’s climate and weather patterns, encouraging shale gas production would not just be unsafe, but also irresponsible.”
Speaking at the launch, John Middleton, the in-coming President of the Faculty of Public Health, said one of the most important actions for governments was to commit to investment in 100% renewables.
“Building an energy economy based on renewables will enable us to secure our energy supply and to tackle fuel poverty. This would reduce excess winter deaths and cold-related hospital admissions. It is time for us to leave new fossil fuels in the ground.”
The report said claims that shale gas would displace coal in the UK were “clearly bogus” because substitution of coal by gas had already mostly occurred. Shale should, instead, be compared with other sources of electricity and heating, it said.
“The fact that shale gas will not displace coal as an energy source in the UK and will instead hinder the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies are additional reasons for opposing SGP in the UK at this point in time.”
Medact repeated its call for the UK to abandon its policy of encouraging shale gas. The report argued:
“Given the availability of alternative sources of energy, these are grounds for placing an indefinite moratorium on SGP [shale gas production] (a position adopted by many jurisdictions across the world) until such time that there is greater clarity and certainty about the relative harms and benefits of shale gas.”
Other health risks
Campaigners sent the earlier version of the Medact report to MPs and members of local councils considering shale gas applications. It was accompanied by legal letters before action, warning politicians that they had a duty of care to their constituents.
Today’s report said there were direct risks to the health and wellbeing of local people living near shale gas sites.
“Hazardous pollutants carrying risks to environment and people are produced at all stages of shale gas production.”
According to Medact, these include: methane; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene; particulate matter (PM); oxides of nitrogen; hydrogen sulphide; silica; heavy metals such as lead, selenium, chromium and cadmium; and naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM).
Dr McCoy said:
“What is striking is the lack of an integrated social, economic, environmental and health impact assessment of fracking”.
“In our view, proponents of shale gas have tended to under-estimate the health and environmental risks, whilst over-estimating its local economic benefits.”
The latest report made no direct links between pollutants and illness. It said:
“Based on current evidence it is not possible to conclude that there is a strong association between shale gas related pollution and negative local health effects.”
It also conceded that society tolerated industrial and commercial practices that were considerably more harmful than shale gas production to the environment and human health. It said nuclear, solar and wind energy had their own negative social, health and environmental impacts.
But Medact said there was potential for direct harm from shale gas through:
- Adverse reproductive outcomes from exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals
- Risk of respiratory effects from ozone and smog
- Stress, anxiety, mistrust, fear arising from nuisance and actual/perceived social and economic disruption
Medact said it remained concerned about the UK’s regulatory framework. The report said:
“The cumulative and synergistic risks of chemical, physical and psychosocial stressors of multiple wellpads and boreholes across a relatively densely populated and economically active, rural landscape will pose a health and environmental threat, particularly if regulation is inadequate and if tight profit margins cause companies to take shortcuts and minimise costs.
“It is therefore important that regulation would be able to keep the level of risk to an acceptable level, and that the benefits of SGP outweigh the harms. This is particularly important for local communities who will bear the brunt of the immediate risks and harms associated with SGP.”
The latest Medact report is accompanied by notes on the charity’s website on aspects of the debate over the safety and value of shale gas production. These charity said the notes aimed to encourage a more evidence-based discussion about shale gas.