MYTH #4: “Fracking poses no risk to public health.”
FACT: Recent research studies in Pennsylvania have found that drilling and fracking activities have been associated with a 27% increase in cardiology hospitalisations for people living near fracking wells.
A Yale University study also found that people living near fracking wells had increased numbers of skin conditions and upper respiratory conditions. The study included 180 randomly selected households and 492 people in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and is “the largest study to date of general health status of people living near gas wells,” said Rabinowitz, first author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “The major symptoms seem to be upper-respiratory symptoms,” including “coughing … itchy eyes, nosebleeds” as well as skin problems such as rashes, itching and burning, Rabinowitz said.
Further studies have linked fracking to high-risk pregnancy, pre-term birth, and low birth weight in infants. A report highlighting the increase in still-born babies in Vernal, Utah, has also received a lot of publicity, and this report from the Los Angeles Times also highlighted how much the industry is trying to shut down the debate about health and fracking.
The standard industry response to any stories about health and fracking is that there is no 100% proof of cause and affect, ie that the pathways for the myriad of health complaints that appear to be occurring to people living near well-sites is not proven. However, New York State banned fracking on grounds of serious risk to public health following a rigorous six-year study, as reported in the New York Times and Huffington Post. You can read the full NY study here, which we highly recommend.
Dr. Howard A. Zucker, NY State Health Commissioner, said on the publication of the report: “Would I let my family live in a community with fracking? The answer is no. The potential risks of fracking are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”
This view is backed by rigorous study of peer-reviewed papers by Concerned Health Professionals of New York, who have produced an extensive compendium of health and fracking related research. They state in a letter to President Obama from October 2015 that “More than 100 new peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of drilling and fracking have been published since New York’s high volume fracking ban was announced in December 2014. Overwhelmingly, these studies find significant risks and adverse impacts, as do the more than 400 studies that we had reviewed in the previous edition of the Compendium.“
Another source of information about the health risks of fracking is PSE (Physicians, Scientists and Engineers) Healthy Energy, which says “The scientific community is only beginning to understand the impacts of shale gas development on human health and the environment. Many data gaps remain, but numerous gaps and risks have been identified.” They also point out that there are now over 550 peer-reviewed papers on the health effects of fracking, and that over 80% of these have been published since 2012 (the year in which the UK government commissioned their own health report, which we’ll come to in a minute).
The PSE report also stated that:
- 84% of studies on health indicated potential public health risk or actual adverse health outcomes’.
- 69% of studies on water quality “indicated potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.”
- 88% of studies on air quality “indicated elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations.”
For more information and a very useful and informative downloadable graphic, go to the PSE Science of Shale Gas Health Development page. and for those with a desire to read the source material, here is theirfull report.
Here in the UK, a report by Medact concluded that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas poses significant risks to public health and called for an immediate moratorium to allow time for a full and comprehensive health and environmental impact assessment to be completed. Please read their letter to the BMJ (British Medical Journal), or read their report – entitled Health and Fracking – The Impacts the Opportunity Costs.
Unsurprisingly, this damning report was criticised by UKOOG, the representative body for the fracking industry, and you can read their comments here. Medact issued a strong rebuttal, which addressed UKOOG’s points, which you can read here. In another letter to the BMJ, they stated: “All substantive criticisms were looked at in detail, but none gave reason to change the conclusions and recommendations of the Medact report. We also note that a number of criticisms were bogus and spurious which suggest a failure to carefully read the Medact report; a wish to incorrectly suggest that the Medact report is full of errors; or an intention to muddy the waters and create (even more) misunderstanding about fracking amongst the public and policy-making community.”
Just to underline that this report was written by serious health professionals, not a bunch of anti-fracking campaigners, here is a list of the people who put their names to the original Medact report:
Dr Robin Stott, Co-Chair, Climate and Health Council
Professor Sue Atkinson CBE, Co-Chair, Climate and Health Counci
Professor Hugh Montgomery, UCL
Professor Maya Rao OBE
Professor Martin McKee, LSHTM
Dr Clare Gerada, GP and former Chair of RGCP
Dr Christopher Birt, University of Liverpool and Christie Hospital, Manchester
Professor John Yudkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UCL
Dr Sheila Adam, former Deputy Chief Medical Officer
Professor Klim McPherson, Chair of the UK Health Forum
Dr John Middleton, Vice President UKFPH
Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, KCL
Helen Gordon, Board Member, Climate and Health Council
Dr Frank Boulton, Medact and Southampton University
Dr Sarah Walpole, Academic Clinical Fellow
Professor Allyson Pollock, QMUL
Dr Julie Hotchkiss, Acting Director of Public Health at City of York Council
Professor Jennie Popay, Lancaster University
Another report that again concludes there are significant health risks in fracking is by the CHEM Trust, whose Executive Director Dr Michael Warhurst said: “Widespread fracking will threaten many of our valuable wildlife sites, as this technology has a high potential to pollute sensitive aquatic ecosystems; it can also harm human health.” You can read their full report here. Again, this was criticised by UKOOG, which the CHEM Trust responded to here.
There are numerous other health reports that are worth reading, including this one from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
On a more personal level, people in Pennsylvania have compiled a chilling List of the Harmed, written by people whose health and livelihoods have been adversely affected by fracking.
Many other parts of the world, including France, Holland, Bulgaria, Tasmania and Victoria (in Australia) have all banned fracking due to public health and environmental concerns. The debate about whether fracking is banned in Germany, or just severely restricted, is ongoing. Currently Scotland and Wales also have moratoria (temporary bans) on fracking while health assessments are carried out (although in both cases some observers feel that these are under pressure and have been criticised for allowing exploration drilling and potentially coal bed methane production). Northern Ireland have issued planning guidelines to say no to fracking until “there is sufficient and robust evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts”.
So where does this leave us here in England, the only part of the UK where the government’s ‘dash for gas’ is continuing, apparently unhindered by the weight of public and scientific concern about the effects of fracking? We believe that, at the very least, the increasing weight of evidence that fracking has a detrimental affect on human health should lead to a moratorium so that this can all be examined thoroughly. Many people across the world feel that with hundreds peer-reviewed reports already saying that fracking can cause serious health problems, there is already more than enough evidence to ban the practice forever.
What does the British government say?
Whenever the government is challenged on the health impacts of fracking, their response is always the same. They point to a Public Health England report published in October 2013 which concluded, “Public Health England anticipates a low risk to public health from direct releases of chemicals and radioactive material if shale gas extraction is properly operated and regulated.”
However, this report only drew on selected research that had been published by December 2012 – and as the PSE Energy have stated, over 80% of the peer reviewed papers on the health and environmental impacts of fracking have been published since that date.
The Public Health England report was updated and published in its final form in June 2014, with a note saying, “The report has been updated in the light of new significant scientific evidence in peer reviewed or published reports, up to January 2014.”
The report also stated that “There have been no significant changes to the findings in the draft report, PHE-CRCE-002, which was published for comment in October 2013.”
However, as the graphic from PSE Energy shows, there have been over 300 new peer-reviewed health studies since January 2014, and the overwhelming number of these show a range of health problems related to fracking. Indeed, new research appears so regularly that it is hard to keep up. However, the government have not updated their report.
For more on the issues of health and fracking, please visit www.isfrackingsafe.com for the views of a concerned Yorkshire GP on this issue, and also see this article in the Ecologist for a view about the original report.
We leave you with the conclusion of the final Natural Health England report, which appears to fly in the face of the vast majority of peer-reviewed research on the topic. It states: “In conclusion, the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated. In order to ensure this, regulation needs to be strongly and robustly applied.”
All of which is very relevant to the next myth, perhaps even the king of fracking myths …