Statement by Dr Tim Thornton

Statement to North Yorkshire County Council Planning and Regulatory Functions Committee considering Third Energy planning application to frack at Kirby Misperton, 20 May 2016 

My name is Tim Thornton, I was a GP in Ryedale for 32 years. I will talk about evidence based concerns about health impacts that might accompany the testing of the KM8 well and the much longer term of production.

Before I do that, I would like to declare two conflicts of interest in this matter. The first is Nathaniel who is nearly 4 and the second, Annabelle who is now 2yrs old who are both growing up in Ryedale. As a custodian of the countryside I would like to hand over Ryedale as healthy a place as I have enjoyed over the years.

You have a difficult and complex task ahead of you in trying to decide if it is possible or likely for the KM8 well to damage health.
It may be, as people hope – without complication or contamination. It is important to ask – can it be confidently stated that it will all proceed without harm?

The industry, the regulators and probably everyone in this room wants it all to work well with no errors, accidents, or unforeseen problems.
However accidents can happen and engineering can fail.

In my Planning training for Ryedale District Council I was told that the National Planning Policy Framework was key to decision making and that the golden thread of sustainability ran through that policy. Sustainability involves using sound science responsibly and Ensuring a Strong, Healthy and Just Society.

Gregg Clark himself wished for ‘an explicit statement of the need to address, and to seek to achieve’ all of the aspects of sustainable development, and not to start by assuming that one aspect can be traded off against another.

He proposed that

▪ The achievement of sustainable development through planning should be based on the responsible use of a sound evidence base and developed through an open and democratic system.

I am interested in evidence based science rather than predictions and modeling.

I am going to look at the impacts on physical and mental health in adults children and the unborn. I am guided by the science from the last 10 years although most has become available in the last 3. I have taken care to ensure the science is fully evidence based.
To understand the technology better we need to look to where there has been the most experience, as did Public Health England.

It is interesting to note than when I started reading about this I wanted several questions answering. In obtaining answers to my questions I discovered yet more questions.

Overall there has been an analysis of the science relating to fracking and public health which has shown over 80% of papers and reviews demonstrating significant risk of harm or actual harm to public health. 5 Minutes

What seems clear is that we need to consider the test fracking and the production for 9 years in a scientific manner. We need to know with clarity what the risks might be by conducting a credible, fully independent health impact assessment. Then there needs to be a local health status check before any activity takes place. Thereafter periodic health checks can pick up changes to health status for good or bad. NERC – The Natural Environment Research Council of UK met their USA counterpart in November and their report makes for interesting browsing. They are the umbrella body overseeing the British Geological Survey, the Antarctic Survey and other interesting bodies. They proposed this careful baseline and monitoring process in order to try to understand the effect of fracking on health.

Lets look at a few reported impacts starting with those probably from air contamination.

Adults –one study in Pennsylvania showed a 27% increase in hospital admissions for cardiac and neurological conditions within the first 5 years of starting the fracking fields. It was not possible to determine what precisely increased the admissions, it could be the rise in PM 10’s oxides of nitrogen or smog. All are associated with fracking but all are also potentially related to damage to air quality from the drilling and transport, and have potential to cause significant impacts.

Another study on frack pad workers showed that 60% of all the workers were overexposed to silica sand. This is the very fine sand used to prop open the cracks in the deep shale. It can cause progressive scarring of the lungs for which there is no treatment other than oxygen, and increases the risk of getting TB or lung cancer. For some workers the levels of silica were so high that their respirator would not have protected them. Because it is so fine, it cannot be seen by the naked eye so a visual check will not be helpful in detecting it.

Last week a study on children showed the risk of damage to neurological development, increased wheezing and increased school absences in relation to fracking wells. The levels of air contamination suggested that it was appropriate to have a separation distance between the wells and habitation, to avoid wheezing and its consequences.

As a committee you will have to decide this safe distance based on sound science.

Children also experience recurring nosebleeds, rashes, nausea, headache, clumsiness and a nerve type of intense itching of hands and feet.

Exposure to benzene is often reported in the literature. It is significant as there is no known safe level of benzene and it can cause leukemia.

Children are more at risk than adults for a variety of reasons. They play out more, they are close to the ground, they often put things in their mouth, they are growing rapidly but have immature organs and immune systems. As a result they are more at risk from toxic effects.

In rural north Utah the fracking wells have caused such a problem with air quality that in the winter the smog is worse than in Los Angeles. Smog causes sore eyes, sore throats and wheezing and can cause lung cancer in years to come.

The NERC report acknowledges a reason for urgency on air quality being – regional air quality impacts that might lead to non-attainment in downwind areas. (I think that means pollution)

They suggested the USA and UK could develop remote automated monitoring capabilities ….handling real time monitoring…. And it would also mean data can be more effectively translated into evidence based policy.
10 minutes

I now come to a series of reports looking at the impacts of fracking on the unborn and on birth outcomes. The most vulnerable members of our society are perhaps those not yet born, They are particularly vulnerable to spikes of toxins. There are two papers by Lisa McKenzie looking at the effects of living close to wells. She studied 124,000 births and found there was a relationship between the distance from the wells and the mothers’ exposure to multiple wells and the incidence of congenital heart defects. Being a good scientist she returned to repeat the study and enhance it by assessing air quality as well. The difficulty in many studies is the lack of a good baseline.
Meanwhile senior scientists at Johns Hopkins University looked carefully at the number of wells, the distance from the wells and the activity of the wells. The group of mothers with the greatest exposure had a 40% increase in prematurity of more than 3 weeks and a 30% increase in complex pregnancies reported by their physician.

My view of that research is that it shows an association, there is a credible pathway – air contamination, but it still remains early science that would benefit from repeating. However, you may consider that an impact on pregnancy goes beyond acceptable risk, one that needs further clarification before it is fully understood. Besides, how would you be able to reassure the public who are already wary of this process? We were all reassured about lead in petrol, tobacco, diesel cars, thalidomide and DDT and are suspicious of further bland reassurances.

I would like to briefly explore the impact of the development of KM8 and 9 years of production on the mental health of the locality.

I was assisted by the NERC report and would recommend a dip into the more readable sections. I was impressed by a somewhat enigmatic slide chosen to be representative of their opinion–

Headed – Takeaways
It quotes a paper by Jacquet in 2014 on relationships between social-psychological disruption and health outcomes, it comments

Probability of risk exists –
Of rapid industrialisation – boom and bust
Of uneven distribution of cost and benefit …….and, this is the important one –
Of community conflict and corrosive communities

I find it useful to have very authoritative comment from scientific policy makers.

The problems around mental health impacts is that it is even more difficult to quantify and be precise about cause and effects. It has been noted, repeatedly, that communities in a fracking area tend to fragment, the social glue that holds them together is rent by polarising views, of neighbours falling out over which priority takes greater precedence, health, jobs, financial opportunity, loss of enjoyment of nature and so on.
Light pollution at night in the previously dark skies can affect sleep. Noise especially at night can make people feel ill. Being woken is bad enough but at allowable noise levels it can be sufficient to stop you falling back to sleep again. Anger, frustration and sleep deprivation lead to day time malaise and poor mental health. In addition the perception of loss of amenity is damaging, as is the perception of loss of control over your destiny. Again, quotes from NERC ‘ we feel like guinea pigs’, ‘ No one is listening’ ‘Everyone tells us something different ,who should we believe’ You can feel the distress.
Mental ill health leads to physical ill health and spreads through a family.

Children feel awkward about recurring nosebleeds, they miss schooling from their wheezing and may have their outdoor activity curtailed by ill health or the concerns around traffic. Cycling along quiet roads or riding a horse may not be seen as a safe option.

Not much is known about the mental health of the unborn baby although it used to be considered in old wives tales, the recent interest in epigenetics points to environmental influences on the expression of DNA being important in fine tuning an infant.

I would like to mention a large report from California that looked at the ability to reduce the impacts of fracking by improving engineering and regulations. They found that even with the best engineering and the best regulation, many of the most serious impacts from fracking could not be mitigated to less than significant and unavoidable. You can’t make bad stuff go away.

I have taken you on a brief journey through a few of the problems seen with fracking. As a committee you must decide if health can be traded against other priorities. You must determine what level of risk or impact is reasonable to ask of a community. You need to consider what the science tells you about the distance of a well from a home.
Above all you must consider whether to go against the advice of NERC and impose this industry in the absence a social licence.