Public health concerns about fracking were marginalised or ignored in England – new research

pnr gooseneck Cuadrilla Resources

Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site. Photo: Cuadrilla Resources

The UK Government and its advisers “marginalised, downplayed or ignored” public health concerns about shale gas exploration and fracking in England,  new research has concluded.

A study by the University of Stirling found that science was frequently ignored and the shale gas industry was very effective in influencing decision-making.

This had been to the detriment of public health, with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities at the greatest risk, it said.

The research, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, said:

“The industry in England has largely operated in a policy field where the core assumptions of planners and decision makers have quite clearly been in favour of shale development at scale.”

It added:

“decision-making on developments marginalised, downplayed or ignored the science and public health concerns about shale exploration.”

The authors conceded there had been a policy reversal on fracking in November 2019, when the government introduced a moratorium in England.

But they said:

“major air pollution and associated climate change threats [from fracking] remain ‘denied’ and either wholly or partially unaddressed and so ethical and environmental justice dimensions of air pollution have been ignored and marginalised.”

England continued to lag behind the science and international initiatives on climate change and air pollution, they said.

Their study concluded that the Scottish Government had built a more ethical and environmentally-just decision-making process into its energy policy linked to shale gas.

“Science frequently ignored”

The study was described as the first of its kind to examine the environmental and public health aspects of decision-making processes in the shale gas industry in England.

One of the authors, Professor Andrew Watterson, of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, said:

“We found that science was frequently ignored and industry was able to influence decision-making within a political, legal and planning framework in England, to the detriment of public health.

He said:

“Our study looked at how environmental justice and ethics are considered in decisions around shale gas development, which has been shown to adversely affect air quality and contribute to climate change.

“The findings reveal that decision-making by the UK Government and several of its advisory groups marginalised or ignored the ethical and environmental justice consequences and, hence, the public health ramifications of permitting the shale gas industry.”

The co-author, Dr William Dinan, a specialist in political communication and the mediation of environmental and public health issues, said:

“Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is the biggest issue facing the world and requires urgent action.

“Government, legal and planning decisions around climate change and air pollution is of the greatest importance to society. Local communities, governments, policymakers, civil servants, non-governmental organisations, and the sustainable energy industries may all benefit from the results of our research.

“Any new policies should ensure that there are ethical approaches to proposed shale exploration and environmental justice concerns must be incorporated into planning and decision making.”

“Total picture of impacts never fully considered”

The study analysed science on air pollution and shale gas linked to a range of adverse public health indicators. It also looked at planning and key concepts of ethical decision-making and environmental justice.

It found that decision-makers on shale gas were not sufficiently focused on the threats of climate change. Because they dealt with relatively small projects, they underplayed the threats to global public health from the sector as a whole.

The fragmentation of projects and decision-making on shale gas was a significant problem, the study concluded.

“It ensures the total picture of all shale oil and gas impacts is never fully considered and hence national and global burdens of air pollution that will affect small communities are not properly considered.”

Planners have failed to consider the threat of fine particle pollution, the study added. The links between deprivation and the impacts of public health from air pollution had also been neglected in England.

28 replies »

  1. hewes62: Thank you for your most interesting contribution.

    Ionising radiation is the only known cause of de-novo acute leukaemia in children, but is unlikely to represent a major causal pathway. Epidemiological studies have suggested a possible role of non-ionising radiation, some chemicals e.g. benzene, and, especially childhood viral infections. What is generally missing from such studies is any insight into the natural history of the disease and the likely timing of key exposures and mutational events

    The most frequent form of leukaemia in children is ALL (Acute Lymphocytic/ blastic Leukaemia) which is frequently initiated by a chromosome translocation event in utero. Studies in identical twins show however that such an event is insufficient for clinical leukaemia and that a postnatal promotional event is also required.
    Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) is rare in children but more frequent in adults and can be directly caused by benzene. There is often a characteristic preceding myelodysplasia or smouldering leukaemia associated with benzene. Benzene is also a by-product of the combustion of tobacco in cigarettes. Exposure to cigarette smoke accounts for roughly half of all human exposure to benzene in the US.

    So, in my opinion, this particular McKenzie et al study (cited ref: 82) is flawed, because there was no adjustment for maternal smoking, or documented household exposure to smoking during pregnancy, in the analysis. (Apparently, information on maternal smoking was missing for 59% of the study population). If I had been asked to peer review this paper, I would have insisted that the missing data on smoking was provided, as a sine qua non prior to consideration for publication.

    It may transpire that following a prolonged latency period, exposure to benzene from fracking, or benzene from the associated diesel traffic, will eventually, perhaps years later, cause some cases of adult myelodysplasia and AML.
    For now, other peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that living close to active fracking sites increases the likelihood of exacerbation of asthma, premature birth, chronic rhino-sinusitis, migraine headaches, fatigue and maternal stress levels.

    • Dr Frank
      Thanks – I just picked that one out as I clicked on them at random. It was how it was described which made it stand out I guess.

      More later – but thanks for the reply.

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