Senior experts have signed a letter calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the health impacts of fracking.
They included a former health minister and a former President of the UK Faculty of Public Health – the leading professional body for public health specialists.
The letter was presented this morning to Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee. Letter to Dr Sarah Wollaston MP
The signatories called on the committee to undertake:
“a comprehensive review of all current evidence related to the health and social impacts of fracking and other forms of unconventional oil and gas extraction, with a view to delivering its conclusions in spring 2019.”
The letter was signed by Norman Lamb MP, health minister from 2012-2015, and Professor John R Ashton, Former President of the UK Faculty of Public Health and Former Chairman of the UK Public Health Association.
The signatories also included five professors at UK universities, two GPs and a consultant in occupational medicine.
The letter was delivered by one of Dr Wollaston’s constituents, Peter Scott, from Totnes. He said:
“When scientists say things like ‘Fracking is the worst thing I have ever seen … we have the moral imperative to raise the alarm’; ‘the arguments against fracking are overwhelming’; and ‘the conclusion that shale gas operations present a low risk to public health is not substantiated by the literature’ I think it best to listen.”
He referred to a government report on the effects of fracking on air quality, unpublished for three years until after Cuadrilla received government consent to frack in Lancashire:
“When government delays a key report on air pollution until three days after Cuadrilla has been given permission to frack, we have to question whose interests are being furthered by our representatives within that government.
“We are asking for a Health Select Committee enquiry to settle the arguments once and for all and get the truth into the open. This is how democracy works.”
The Health and Social Care Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the policy, administration and spending of the Department of Health and Social Care and its associated organisations. It has powers to require witnesses to attend and produce evidence.
“More than enough evidence”
One of the signatories of today’s letter, Dr Barbara Kneale, an expert in the assessment and impact of work on health, wrote to the energy minister, Claire Perry, last week. Along with retired haematologist, Francis Rugman, she said Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site would be used as “a prospective observational study” of the effect of emissions from fracking. (DrillOrDrop report)
She said today:
“I believe there is more than enough scientific evidence to cast a shadow over the safety of this industry. Why is the government taking such a risk of adverse outcomes for a fossil fuel which we do not need or want? I believe the population of England is being ignored and the public health of the nation is being put at risk. So just ask yourself, is it worth risking your health, that of your families and that of the British public?”
“Reliance on outdated reports”
The letter to Dr Wollaston criticises the government for relying on outdated reports, particularly the review of fracking and health commissioned from Public Health England (PHE).
This was published in 2014 and looked only at potential impacts from exposures to chemicals and radioactive pollutants.
It did not examine water sustainability, noise, traffic (except vehicle exhaust), smell, visual impact, occupational exposure or wider social effects.
The letter described the PHE report as “very limited in scope” and “seriously out of date”.
“It has since become clear that the Government and the oil and gas industry are determined to move towards commercial-scale shale gas extraction as soon as possible, despite overwhelming opposition from concerned local communities up and down the country, yet no further study of the wider health impacts of fracking has been commissioned, as was recommended in the PHE report summary.”
The letter said the PHE report was based on selective research, published up to January 2014, and its conclusions are more than four years old.
“in the intervening years there have been literally hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the health impacts of fracking published around the world. There is now convincing scientific evidence that fracking is a danger to the health and well-being of people living near well-sites, with several studies pointing to an increase in premature births, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, heart attacks, migraines, childhood asthma, and a variety of other lung and skin diseases.”
US and UK reviews
In the US, the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility have produced the Compendium of scientific, medical and media findings demonstrating risks and harms of fracking. The most recent fifth edition, published in March 2018, drew on more than 1,200 peer-reviewed research articles, many published in the past four years. It concluded:
“There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperilling climate stability upon which public health depends.”
Dr Sandra Steingraber, one of the compendium’s co-authors and a signatory of the letter, said:
“Fracking is the worst thing I have ever seen. Those of us in the public health sector started to realise years ago that here were potential risks. Now we see these risks turn into human harms and people are getting sick. And we in this field have the moral imperative to raise the alarm.”
The letter also referred to a UK review by the health professionals’ charity, Medact, which looked at 350 academic papers. This concluded that fracking had negative health impacts from potential water and air pollution, noise, traffic, damage to the natural environment, local social and economic disruption, and the indirect effects of climate change.
The Medact report was endorsed by the UK’s Faculty of Public Health. Its then president, Professor John Middleton, said:
“The regulatory system for fracking is incomplete and weak.
“The precise level of risk to human health from fracking cannot be calculated. Intensive levels of fracking activity could pose additional risks in the UK when compared to experiences elsewhere because of the proximity and size of surrounding populations.”
The government and UK onshore oil and gas industry has consistently argued that the UK has world-leading regulation and that this will ensure that shale gas can be explored safely with no risk to public health.
The industry organisation, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, provided a detailed response to the letter sent by Dr Kneale and Dr Rugman. This can be viewed here (see end of post)