Time for comprehensive review of health impacts of fracking, say doctors

Health sign

Photo: DrillOrDrop

A government adviser has been accused of “negligent failure” for refusing to revise a report on the health impacts of fracking.

Two senior doctors have urged the chief executive of Public Health England (PHE), Duncan Selbie, to “reflect on previous inaction and publish an updated review”.

In an open letter, Dr Frank Rugman, a retired consultant haematologist, and Dr Barbara Kneale, honorary assistant professor at Nottingham Medical School, said:

“PHE appears to have allied itself with the pro-fracking UK Government, in suggesting that the risk can be mitigated and reduced to an acceptable level through regulations that have already been found to be inadequate”.

The doctors asked whether the Government and PHE were truly committed to the Cleaner Air Strategy when they had refused to review new evidence on air pollution linked to fracking.

They said:

“The medical profession not only has a duty to protect the health of individuals and to do no harm, but also has a duty to protect the health of populations.

“We cannot in all conscience stand by, without making comment on what many now consider to be a negligent failure by Public Health England in refusing to publish an updated review.”

1406 PHE report

The original PHE report, published in 2013, concluded that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with shale gas would be low if operations were properly run and regulated.

The report has since been criticised for being out-of-date and for its limited scope.

It considered only studies on the effects of direct emissions of chemicals and radioactive material from the extraction of shale gas. It did not consider studies of the impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable use of water resources, noise and odour, traffic (apart from vehicle exhaust), occupational health or visual impact.

An update of the report considered peer-reviewed or published reports up to January 2014 but there was “no significant changes” to the conclusions, PHE said.

There are no plans to update the review. But Drs Rugman and Kneale said new research has found evidence of the adverse health effects of fracking.

They said it was “irrefutable” that the shale gas industry was “inherently hazardous”. They cited: particulates PM2.5; volatile organic compounds, such as benzene; physical hazards; radioactive materials; excessive heavy traffic; and the impacts of dust.

They said:

“Some of these hazards are classed as carcinogens and as such it is accepted that there is no safe limit.

“Moreover, Public Health England, has accepted that there are hazards harmful to health but have dismissed them as being “low’’ due to the ability of the UK regulatory system. An assumption which is disputed by many.”

181013 pnr (10)

Protestors at Preston New Road site 13 October 2018 Photo: DrillOrDrop

This is the doctors’ latest call in an ongoing campaign for a comprehensive review of the health impacts of unconventional oil and gas.

In August 2018, they wrote to the energy minister, Claire Perry, arguing that people living near Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site were being treated as guinea pigs for studies on the impact of chemical emissions.

Also that month, the pair were among signatories of a letter organised by campaign network, Frack Free United, to Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, the chair of the parliamentary health select committee. This called on the committee to review all the current evidence on the health effects of unconventional oil and gas production.

In November 2018, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, confirmed that PHE had not changed its view on the hazards of shale gas.

He told Dr Wollaston:

“PHE continues to review the evidence on the potential public health impacts of emissions associated with shale gas extraction and have not currently identified nay significant evidence that would make it change its views stated in its review.”

Frack Free United has called on Mr Hancock to provide a list of the research assessed by PHE since 2014. It also asked why PHE was not considering wider health impacts of fracking.

47 replies »

  1. Given that neither of the Dr’s have published a significant amount of research on this subject in peer reviewed journals I can’t really see why their views are being taken too seriously. Maybe the headline would be more informative if it read “Time for comprehensive review of health impacts of fracking, say anti-fracking activists”

  2. Well the article does reiterate that doctors are rightly concerned about our health Judith. Are pro fracking activist doctors around then (I haven’t heard of any!) who are saying ‘We don’t give a damn about your health and there should not be any research into it’

    • I’m not sure being trained as a clinician is what is needed here. There have been lots of studies done by people who are very qualified in data interpretation, evidence-based practise and statistic that have looked at this issue. The studies that I’ve seen certainly wouldn’t stop me living directly next to a fracking site particularly when one takes into account the difference in working practices between the UK and USA

      • Time to wake up. Given the government’s continuing, if diminishing drive for shale despite the urgency to combat climate change, it really is extraordinary how such gullibility over government assurances concerning the safety of UK regulations compared with those in the US can persist. We do ourselves no favours in our readiness to accept that black is white simply because this is what we are told. Instances of government mendacity, incompetence and ignorance are not hard to find: this is yet another.
        PSE published the report referred to below in 2016, and the introduction is quoted in full.
        The medical profession rightly feels obliged to highlight perceived risks to public health.

        Toward an understanding of the environmental and public health impacts of shale gas development: an analysis of the peer reviewed scientific literature, 2009-2015

        PSE Healthy Energy
        20 April 2016
        Updated 20 April 2016

        Link to publicly-available peer-reviewed paper (April 2016)
        Press release for paper publication (April 20 2016)
        Download infographic (Revised April 2016)


        The body of science evaluating the potential impacts of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) has grown significantly in recent years, although many data gaps remain. Still, a broad empirical understanding of the impacts is beginning to emerge amidst a swell of research. The present categorical assessment provides an overview of the peer-reviewed scientific literature from 2009–2015 as it relates to the potential impacts of UNGD on public health, water quality, and air quality. We have categorized all available original research during this time period in an attempt to understand the weight and direction of the scientific literature. Our results indicate that at least 685 papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that are relevant to assessing the impacts of UNGD. 84% of public health studies contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes; 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination; and 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations. This paper demonstrates that the weight of the findings in the scientific literature indicates hazards and elevated risks to human health as well as possible adverse health outcomes associated with UNGD. There are limitations to this type of assessment and it is only intended to provide a snapshot of the scientific knowledge based on the available literature. However, this work can be used to identify themes that lie in or across studies, to prioritize future research, and to provide an empirical foundation for policy decisions. In this analysis we provide an overview of current scientific knowledge regarding potential environmental public health hazards and risks associated with the development of shale gas. We include only published peer-reviewed literature available on the subject.

        • Iaith1720 – i’m not sure how stopping shale gas development in the UK will reduce GHG emissions given the number of house that have gas fired central heating etc. Your arguments about not trusting the government seem more like that of a conspiracy theorist than a rational person. Surely you can see that not having open pits for produced water, not allowing venting of hydrocarbons to the atmosphere etc makes a significant difference. The article that you’ve pasted the abstract for doesn’t stand up to much intellectual scrutiny – the first few lines very much have the smell of “my papers been rejected by the reviewers because it’s rubbish but they will allow it to be published if I tell the readers to treat it with a healthy sense of caution”.

          • Wells, like our gas central heating, will produce emissions during exploration and development in greater quantities than in conventional exploitation. The idea of course is that this gas is available for combustion and is handier and cheaper than importing gas, with all kinds of wonderful job and regained-independence spin-offs. This gaseous gold will encourage more of us to find and exploit it – it’s there, we’ve got to have it, as I was once told. This process has its own momentum as our culture encourages us to believe that we have the right, even duty, to enrich ourselves. We will be actively encouraged to continue to develop gas reserves rather than invest in fuel sources which do no harm, or whose harms are less significant. We will be discouraged from the latter as the shale train is moving, as individuals are getting richer, as government promotes existing industry and encourages new without adequate safeguards which will save the planet from extinction. Those of us who oppose shale are encouraged to believe that this process is inevitable once shale is established, and our beliefs that government is complicit cannot simply be passed off as ‘conspiracy theory’ – convenient though this would be for some and an attractive thought-free argument for the unwittingly complicit. Government’s complicity in the arguments of big business have been very apparent in its defence of heavily polluting industries, its reluctance to legislate for and enforce water and air protections until forced to, its protection of the profits of pharma, its failure to act against tobacco until significant damage had been caused, its continuing promotion of an arms industry which on my behalf, and yours, slaughters babies in the Yemen and elsewhere. Against these accusations government adduces its arguments, specious of course, but nonetheless hypocritical.
            If shale is stopped, imports will not flag – indeed Government informs us that supplies are adequate without shale – and Government does not lie. Whilst burning fossil fuels to keep ourselves warm etc. we will not be diverted from that imperative we have discerned to gradually, but not too gradually, abandon fossil fuels in favour of alternatives which will encourage the effort and investment which now favour shale. Profits will still be made, even large profits, and gradually we might come to realise that our individual anthropology is a lie, a lie which encourages personal greed at the expense of others, and an ecological anthropology will declare itself, one which declares inter alia that we on this planet will all make it together or none of us will make it.
            On another level, of course current shale regulations offer a measure of immediate protection, but given the enormity of the threat to the planet and its inhabitants, nowhere near enough.
            Of course you can detect whichever smells you like from the abstract pasted, and flaunt your intellectual objections ad nauseam. These however might be better directed not at the abstract but at the content and quantity of the papers heralded by the abstract. Now if I were to assert that these papers deliberately colluded with one another to deliver a mendacious message then conspiracy theory might apply to my voice. Is it not more likely that they have each been researched by concerned individuals?
            “Healthy…caution” of course is at the root of all scientific research which proceeds by research, idea and development, and seldom claims complete infallibility. It seldom asserts that the job is done. It is nonetheless important.

          • Judith, I appreciate your comments but climate change should always be considered in a global context. The U.K. as one of the major contributors of ghgs over the centuries has a very large part to play in helping reduce global emissions. Irrespective of gas cookers or heating U.K. homes we should stay focussed on the bigger picture and be doing far more to reduce our dependence on gas and all fossil fuels. The idea of extracting new reserves of fossil fuels is completely against action to tackle climate change. If we are serious about climate change the world literally cannot burn the known reserves we already have. The more fossil fuels we extract ultimately the more will be burnt. Climate change is the biggest threat to health and the environment we face. I think when James Hansen criticises the U.K. for pursuing a fracking industry we should all take note.


      • Martin. “Two doctors and one of them is retired!” Are you saying the retired doctor has suddenly forgotten all the medical knowledge he ever had?

  3. How can this revoew be conducted?, What are the credentials of these so-called Dr’s?, Where are the reviews on the amount of airborne pollution, allergies and viruses which haven’t been reduced! I personally have never known of so many increases in human allergies, viruses and diseases!! Dr’s should concentrate on a self inflicted review on smoking, drinking and drug abuse for modern day health impacts!!

  4. Fracking?! Don’t make me laugh. Air pollution in the cities! Guys, get a grip!
    DoD journalism tell you anything which suits its agenda. One of many swayed internet websites. And in the title ‘independent’…Pathetic.

    • Jack
      No one should say anything is ‘safe’. Safe, and unsafe are words that need qualifying by reference to data.

      I do not think it is safe to cycle on a main road, others think it is a human right!

      • HEWES62,

        YOU have a choice as to whether you ride your bike on dangerous road or not.

        The people living in the Fracking zones do not have a choice . They are having this thrust upon them against their will, by people who live far away from the affected places…..

        I suppose it may be a little bit more palatable for the people living in these communities , if the CEOs / directors of these Fracking companies lived with their families within the 1km Fracking boundaries, but they don’t and they never will.

        Fracking reminds me of asbestos, medical professionals were warning of the dangers long before it was banned. I suppose the reasons for the dangers being ignored, as with most such things was MONEY…… Just like the unwillingness of those in power now who choose to ignore medical and science professionals who warn of the dangers of Fracking.

        • HEWES62,

          Nearly missed out the Elephant in the room .

          Would also like to add Tobacco ( smoking ) to the above.

          A harmful substance whose real dangers were suppressed from the people for generations with the influence of BIG money .

          • Jack
            Yes, tho my dad told us that it gave you lung cancer on 1960 ( the year we found a full packet of fags in the delivery slot of a cigarette machine ). So I was surprised that anyone post that did not know, as it was well publicised at school, as were the dangers of drink.

            So interesting to go coal mining where smoking ( on pit top ) snuff and chewing tobacco ( underground ) were out in force

        • Jack

          I do indeed have a choice as I have retired, but it was not always thus ( biking to work ).

          I take your point re CEO proximity. I suspect that plant managers would be happy to do so if there were suitable houses available.

          Re dangers of fracking, the discussion is normally the level of danger rather than its absence. So the poster picture above saying ‘Fracking damages health’ is correct, but to what level and whether that is acceptable is what drives the discussion. Just as a poster saying, driving your kids to school in a fossil fuel powered car damages other kids health’ would be true, or my favourite …Tourism damages your health!

    • Jackthelad – how many peer reviewed articles do you want me to produce saying that coffee is dangerous to ones health? Clearly, you don’t have much of a science background do you Jack? One always comes across articles that have contradictory evidence. Scientists read both sets and then make up their mind but not JacktheLad – he just googles health dangers with fracking and then post the links without reading or understanding the articles.

          • Thanks for the laugh JUDITH, that’s a bit rich coming from you .

            Forum members will have already noted that you always avoid difficult FACT based evidencec from professional bodies of people.

            You only ever give an opinion, you never, NEVER back up your opinions with any evidence.

      • OK JUDITH ,

        So how do you know, I don’t understand the evidence I put forward ???????

        Just a random OPINION again JUDITH, with ZERO evidence to back it up .

        Like I said before , for all we know, your claim to fame may be no more than a mobile butty bar at the end of Blackpool Pier .

        • Like I said before Jack, your inability to understand other sources of information widely available to those in the UK indicates, for all we know, a laudable but skewed interest in what is happening elsewhere-or, just a closed mind. Even with the use of the plural, it doesn’t make it so.

          • To give you more than a link, Jack:

            “Like I said before, for all I know” is the correct English. Does remove some of the impact, but the “alternative” version is a bit too obvious, and an attempt to suggest support for your own opinion (oops) that you supply no evidence for (oops).

          • MARTIN , thanks for the laugh.

            BUT as per usual your comment is completely void of FACTS or EVIDENCE .

            It is you who has difficulty understanding things .

            Ladies and Gentlemen of the forum, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself .

            Cut and paste a link from a professional organisation of body of people who warn of the dangers of Fracking and ask MARTIN to comment .

            It’s the fastest way to achieve deadly silence.

            [Typo edited at poster’s request]

  5. Jack
    In you link, Dr Watterson looks at water issues ( amongst others ).

    He starts off saying that in the UK supporters say thinks will be different ( for a number of reasons), then says that the US industry does not have a clean bill of health, so … therefore the UK argument does not hold water ( ie he avoids the argument and reaches a conclusion which is not linked to his initial statement.

    He also plays the Brexit card and applies it to the UK ( so Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland are included).

    Any thoughts on that specific bit of the text? It seems a bit of a stretch.

  6. Burning wood around the camp fire like the one outside PNR is a health hazard with all those smoke and participate release from the wood.
    Those dirty low hygienic living conditions in the anti frackers camp site is a health risk (proven).
    Fuel poverty is a proven health risk.
    Scaremongering the public with unsubstantiated claims is a mental health risk to the locals and naive impressionable minds.
    All these are health risks that are a result of anti frackers and their band of activists.

    • Ladies undies hanging on the fence at PNR being photographed by someone who has mobilised a 3 litre BMW diesel to do so, is also a health risk! Also something else-a tacky attempt at a publicity stunt.
      But, of course, if someone (Sir Jim) invests £110m to support British sport, that is just a publicity exercise.

Add a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s