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The report has since been criticised for being out-of-date and for its limited scope.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