Safety of fracking is far from assured


A letter to the Independent newspaper from the Director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research, University of Stirling

You quote the Director of Public Health England’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards that produced the fracking report (1 November), saying: “The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with the shale gas extraction process are low if operations are properly run and regulated.” The minister responsible for fracking in England states: “The UK has the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas and companies will only be granted permission to frack for shale if their operations are safe.” Low risk is of course not the same as safe.

There are major questions too about how a government committed to a deregulatory and reduced regulatory agenda, along with chopping budgets – and the resulting major job losses in agencies that have oversight of environmental pollution – will be capable of guaranteeing that fracking companies operate safely.

Also extraordinary is the minister’s unsubstantiated statement that the UK has the most robust regulatory regime for fracking. In other countries the exact chemicals used in fracking have been covered by commercial confidentiality and are not disclosed fully. So how can their risks be fully assessed and cleared for UK use?

The draft review itself does not provide information indicating it is a systematic review and provides minimal information about its method, rigour and results. Public health practitioners look for high-quality systematic reviews before accepting any conclusion about a lack of public health risk.

The review also notes many gaps and specifically excludes consideration of occupational health and safety and climate change. This is a very odd way of assessing public health threats and could for example lead to the impression that climate change does not impact on public health: something strongly refuted by those working in the field.

All in all, the report raises as many questions as it attempts to answer and most certainly does not show that fracking is safe, as the UK Government tries to assert.

Professor Andrew Watterson

Director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research

University of Stirling


Letters: Safety of fracking is far from assured – Letters – Voices – The Independent.

New research into fracking wastewater

A recent academic report from the United States suggests that, despite soothing statements by politicians and industry, toxic and dangerous substances in fracking wastewater are not being effectively removed by treatment and are entering surface waters (rivers, streams etc.) with potentially serious effects on the health of local people.

This report by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) at the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), University Of Pittsburgh,focuses on the treatment of UNGD (Unconventional Gas Development) wastewaters by wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), and the subsequent discharges to surface waters.

In an effort to stop the discharge of Marcellus Shale unconventional natural gas development wastewaters into surface waters, on May 19, 2011 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) requested drilling companies stop disposing their wastewater through wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). This research includes a chemical analysis of effluents discharged from three WWTPs before and after the request. The WWTPs sampled included two municipal, publically owned treatment works and a commercially operated industrial wastewater treatment plant.

Analyte concentrations were quanitified and then compared to water quality criteria, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency MCLs and “human health criteria.” Certain analytes including barium, strontium, bromides, chlorides, total dissolved solids, and benzene were measured in the effluent at concentrations above criteria. Analyte concentrations measured in effluent samples before and after the PADEP’s request were compared for each facility. Analyte concentrations in the effluents decreased in the majority of samples after the PADEP’s request. This research provides preliminary evidence that these and similar WWTPs may not be able to provide sufficient treatment for this wastewater stream, and more thorough monitoring is recommended.

The analysis of effluent samples collected prior to the PADEP’s request indicated that concentrations of analytes in effluent were above water quality criteria. Ba, Sr, and bromides are of particular public health concern. The metals strontium and barium both surpassed the federal MCL for drinking water and benzene in WWTP-3 effluent was detected at concentrations above the MCL [maximum concentration level] and EPA human health criteria.

This is a disturbing report which adds to the increasing evidence that the by-products of high volume hydraulic fracturing are not being dealt with safely and effectively. If this is the case in the United States, a country with a comparatively low-density population, it is even more disturbing for the UK and Ireland, where we have little or no margin for error.

Read the full report here.

Photograph from report.



Methane leakage – the disturbing reality

A study carried out by a U.S. government agency and prestigious research institute has shown a highly disturbing level of methane leakage in gas production.

The measurements, carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and  the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average on February days.

These findings have worrying implications on many levels. The possible effects of such high concentrations of methane in the air are disturbing for both human and animal health.  Furthermore, given that methane is a greenhouse gas around twenty times more potent than CO2, this discovery gives the lie to any suggestion that shale gas could be a ‘green’ or ‘transition’ fuel.

Read the full report here.

Picture shows a natural gas compressor station at the Dry Canyon junction in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah, United States. By Trica Simpson, published under Creative Commons Licence.



Women’s experiences of fracking

A new study of women’s health in the rural Appalachian region of the United States reveals the extent of the physical, psychological and social impacts of fracking on their daily lives.

The researchers, who are themselves nurse-practitioners, interviewed fourteen women of between thirty-five and eighty-nine years old, living in south-western Pennsylvania, in counties where fracking is most prevalent.

Here are some of their findings, in the interviewees’ own words:

“We were tested for chemicals we were inhaling off the impalements and it came back showing that we had moderate levels of benzene and toluene in us… so it was like once we got our water problems straightened out, then we were dealing with the problem of the air… That was making us more sick, especially when the weather started getting more hot and humid,and the air wasn’t moving.”

“I just feel so unhealthy… I’m just exhausted… I cry all the time…
I don’t want to get this upset… it’s just hard watching my
kids be sick because they have always been so healthy.”

“I am stressed out to the end of my rope.”

“I cannot go outside due to the (silicon) dust that is on my
house and windows. I can’t breathe.”

“I have rashes and problems breathing from the blue ‘frack fog’.” [Woman living downwind from a pond used for fracking waste liquids]

“They drained all the chemicals out (from the waste water pits) as of two or three weeks ago. I bought cancer insurance for all of us before it’s too late, just so we are ready for what the future brings.”

“There’s power pressing down on you, and it’s all about money. You can’t fight, you can’t talk. No one will listen.”

“We live here for a reason. My great grandfather lived here. My dad grew up here. I love my kitchen. And I mean it’s just a house and my kid’s health is not worth us staying here. But at the same time, this is our house and we want to be here.”

“We had to move out because it had gotten so bad… the smell was horrible… we had terrible headaches, sore throats, burning in our eyes, nose and …  mouth. You feel like you can’t swallow… you feel like you can’t breathe when you’re outside.”

“We’re afraid to come home yet because we don’t want to re-expose…”

“Since we’ve been away from the chemicals, it’s been better… we are
trying to live in three different places…”

“There is so much noise, 24/7… There are lights all the time because of the flaring… My nice stable quiet country life has become a day to day chaos and it is unfortunate. That quiet county life is gone and it’s the reason we stayed here and lived here.”

“… just the trucks up and down the road 24/7 is a constant aggravation. They [the truckers] can hit small pets… they run over things.”

“It’s like the television show the X Files where the white trucks come in.”

“We might be country but we aren’t stupid.”

“I was accused of poisoning my elderly father because he got sick at home but improved once hospitalized. I realized later that it was the
contaminated well water at our home and I was the one encouraging
him to drink because he had an indwelling catheter.”

“It’s like living in a science fiction movie. I feel like I am stuck in a bad dream… they (the government) allow it to happen. They don’t care.”

Read the full report here.

Image by Famartin under Creative Commons licence.

Children Banned From Talking About Fracking, Forever


You may hear politicians saying, reassuringly, that there are ‘no documented cases’ of fracking causing water contamination or health problems.  This is why: it’s not that the damage doesn’t occur (the fact that the fracking companies are so keen to settle out of court shows that) but that those who suffer aren’t allowed to talk about it.  Not even when they’re only seven years old….

Read more here: ‘Frack Gag’ Bans Children From Talking About Fracking, Forever | ThinkProgress.

West Virginia Fracking Explosion Leaves At Least 5 People Injured

An explosion over the weekend at a natural gas well site in West Virginia operated by Antero Resources injured at least five people, prompting state and federal investigations, local officials and Antero said on Monday.


A spark triggered a flash explosion and a fire after a problem occurred while flowback fluids were being pumped into storage tanks. Two storage tanks exploded at 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT) on Sunday, according to Antero spokesman Alvyn Schopp. Five workers were taken to hospital with burns, he said.

“We do not know the ignition source, but we suspect it was a methane explosion,” said Schopp, vice president at Antero, an oil and natural gas company controlled by Warburg Pincus LLC .

Read more here: West Virginia Fracking Explosion Leaves At Least 5 People Injured.

RSPB warns Northern Ireland not to push ahead with fracking

The RSPB, the largest conservation charity in Europe, has joined with other concerned organisations to warn the Northern Ireland Executive of the dangers of fracking.  They say:

‘Conservation charity the RSPB and two other leading environmental organisations are warning the Northern Ireland Executive not to push ahead with ‘fracking’ (a controversial method to extract gas) until sufficient evidence shows that it is safe to do so.

In County Fermanagh, the idyllic surroundings for the G8 summit, a licence has already been issued to explore for shale gas, but it is still unclear what the economic, social and environmental impact will be.

The RSPB, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH) are deeply concerned about the environmental and health risks posed by ‘fracking’. The group believe more research is needed to understand the extent and impact of fracking on this beautiful habitat. John Martin, RSPB, stated that “Shale gas exploration and extraction should only be allowed within a strict regulatory and policy framework that is fit for purpose, and in Northern Ireland this does not exist.” In addition, Mr Martin continued “we believe that an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be required for all developments here. This has not been the case for other UK sites and problems have followed.”

Co Fermanagh is known for its excellent agricultural produce and wonderful natural heritage which attracts valuable spend from tourists travelling here from around the world. Much of the local economy has been built around this and as yet it is not known what impact fracking will have on these rich natural assets. Declan Alison, FOE stated “2050 is the cut-off date given by Tamboran, the company issued with the licence for exploration. No provision is given by the company on what will happen next but as temporary exploitation, shale gas is not an answer to economic uncertainty in the long term.”

A 2007 study commissioned on behalf of nine leading NGOs and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency found that economic activities relating to the environment contributed over half a billion to our local economy and the equivalent of over 32,000 jobs. “It would be foolish to threaten this already existing green economy in such uncertain times”, concluded Mr Alison.

The controversial method involves geological risks and can be responsible for triggering earthquakes as happened in Lancashire. Fermanagh has a unique geology which is rich in caves (map in annex): the group believe the seismic risk associated with fracking must be fully assessed as this could introduce unnecessary risks.

“Shale gas will also endanger NI’s ability to deliver on its climate change commitments within the UK Climate Act3 and move towards a green economy added Gary McFarlane of CIEH and Chair of Stop Climate Chaos NI. “Northern Ireland has some of the best features nature has to offer- wind, wave and tidal. These invaluable assets should be the future of the NI green economy and developing renewable energy could create thousands of new jobs”.

France, Bulgaria and South Africa have suspended the search for shale gas until research uncovers the potential long-term impacts on human health and the environment.’


Read the full statement with diagrams here, and see the accompanying map of the licence area, its water catchment and important nature conservation areas here.

Public consultation on fracking research – your chance to speak

The Environmental Protection Agency in the Republic of Ireland has produced a terms of reference document setting out their proposals for a programme of research into “unconventional gas exploration and extraction”.  The steering committee for this research includes the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and it will be of great importance on both sides of the border.  To read the terms of reference please click here and to make your own submissions about it, please email before the deadline of March 8th.


If you are concerned about this issue, as an individual or on behalf of a community group or other organisation, please use this opportunity to make your voice heard. You may wish to write a detailed response or simply to refer to question one on page two; ‘Can this technology be used whilst also fully protecting the environment and human health?’
For more details please read the EPA’s press release below.

Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland.

Fracking and health – professionals speak out

On 28th January at the Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen, the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network were delighted to host a presentation by Dr Eilish Cleary, Chief Medical Officer for Health, New Brunswick, Canada. As explained in our post of 11th December, Dr. Cleary has recently produced a report about the public health implications of shale gas development using fracking. Dr Cleary was on a family holiday to Ireland and very kindly agreed to speak about her report to medical professionals, elected representatives, and concerned residents in and around Fermanagh.


The large audience was welcomed by Dr. Carroll O’Dolan, the chair of FFAN, who thanked all who had been involved in making the event possible, especially Dr. Cleary herself and the owners and staff of the Killyhevlin Hotel. Carroll then introduced the first speaker, Gary McFarlane.

Gary was appointed as the Director for the Chartered Institute of Environmental
Health (CIEH) in Northern Ireland in late 2001 The CIEH is a national, professional, charitable organisation whose mission is to maintain, enhance and promote improvements in public health through knowledge, understanding and campaigning. As director he is involved in contributing to the development of healthy public policy, reestablishing the critical links between environment and health within the context of sustainable development and public health. Gary is also currently the co-chair of the Public Health Alliance, is a board member of Sustainable Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Environment Link. He chairs the advisory board to the environmental
health undergraduate programme at the University of Ulster and has been appointed to the Safe Food Scientific Advisory Committee.

He spoke eloquently of his vision of health, as not simply the absence of disease but as a state of complete well-being; social, and emotional, as well as physical and psychological. Within this context, the lack of research into the health and environmental implications of fracking and shale gas exploitation is deeply worrying. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States is at last now beginning to investigate the effects of fracking on groundwater, but it is also essential to consider its effect on soil and its indirect effects on tourism, agriculture etc. Only such a complete investigation can give anything like a full picture of the real results of fracking for human health.

The view of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health is that the precautionary principle should be the foundation of policy in this, as in other areas. As such, any proposals for shale gas development should be carefully analysed not only by means of an Environmental Impact Assessment but also with a Health Impact Assessment. Furthermore, such a study should look particularly at the effects of the industry upon health inequalities and upon those in our society who are already the most vulnerable.

Dr Eilish Cleary, the main speaker of the evening, addressed the audience next. If there was one message, she said, that they should take away with them, it was the importance of asking questions. It is only by asking the right questions, and being determined to find answers, that we can keep ourselves and our communities safe and healthy.

Her presentation was divided into three parts: the first looking at the functions and principles of public health, the second at the shale gas industry and the third at the report which she, together with colleagues, produced in New Brunswick.

Public health as a discipline covers a wide range of functions including measuring and monitoring the health of individuals within society, preventing disease and injury, preparing emergency responses, and protecting the health of the public from the many hazards which assail it. The prerequisites for good health have been identified as peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice and equity. If any of these are lacking, it becomes difficult or impossible for an individual or a community to achieve or maintain a truly healthy life. In common with other disciplines, public health recognises the ‘three-legged stool’ model of sustainability, that it depends upon environmental, social and economic factors, and that unless all these areas are nurtured, a society cannot be said to be sustainable.

In a complex world, much of public health work is necessarily concerned with risk management. When faced with potential or actual damage, disease or injury, there is a range of responses that may be taken. Earliest, most effective and least expensive is prevention, making sure that the damage does not occur in the first place. If this is not carried out, then less effective and more expensive paths must be taken; mitigation, response or recovery and remediation.

Within this context, Dr Cleary then went on to consider the risks to human health which are posed by shale gas development. There are several pathways by which humans can be exposed to contamination caused by the industry, principally inhalation (breathing in toxic substances), dermal contact (through the skin), ingestion (eating or drinking contaminated food or drink) and maternal (the exposure of an unborn child to contamination while in its mother’s womb). Each of these pathways can bring people into contact with different types of contamination. For example, machinery and vehicles involved in shale gas activities produce several different types of toxic emissions including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitric oxides.
The effects of the various types of contamination on health are wide-ranging, including reproductive, dermal (skin), and haemologic (blood) disorders. Full details of the pathways, types of potential contamination and their effects can be found in Dr. Cleary’s report here.

Faced with this type of problem, Dr. Cleary suggested that the conventional way of looking at the situation is fundamentally flawed. This traditional approach tends to begin with the industry and its processes, then considering its effect on the environment and finally upon public health. Suppose we instead began with the requirements for a healthy population, those factors identified earlier as including peace, social justice, a stable eco-system and sustainable resources? Then proposals for industrial activity could be more accurately assessed according to whether they contributed to, or destroyed, those fundamental building blocks of health.

Sadly, we are a long way from such an approach today. The situation that Dr Cleary was faced with in New Brunswick was that the government had already made the decision to go ahead with shale gas extraction. The question that she was faced with, therefore, was not whether or not such activities should be carried out – that one had already been answered by others – but what measures could push the situation in the direction of being a net benefit, rather than a loss, for the health of New Brunswick’s people.

Given both the constraints of this situation and the lack of research and evidence available, it was not possible for the New Brunswick report to be a complete overview of all the public health impacts threatened by shale gas development. Instead, it was more a survey of what is currently known upon the subject, and, perhaps more importantly, what is not known. There are a disturbing number of data gaps including the health status of affected populations, details of their exposure, information about the toxicity of chemicals used in the extraction processes and those contained in waste products, health impact assessments, forecasting and analysis of the cumulative and lifestyle impacts of the industry’s activities and their consequences. One of the most significant achievements of Dr. Cleary’s report is in identifying these gigantic holes in what is currently known about shale gas and human health.

A particular problem related to shale gas extraction is that the industry typically begins in any location on a very small scale but that development thereafter is extremely rapid. This speed of growth, and the inevitable implications for the health of local people, requires proper planning before the first development; it is not sufficient to rely upon ad hoc measures as the activity increases.

In line with the general pattern of absent information, there is little clear data from locations where shale gas extraction is already underway. There are, however, certain common themes which emerge from the evidence available. These are: physical accidents occurring on and off-site, air and water quality problems, a loss of community cohesion, the boomtown effect and mental health issues. It is important to note the breadth of these problems and that the difficulties related to shale gas exploitation are emphatically not only those of chemical toxicity.

To date, public health experts and officials have been largely absent from the discussions about fracking and therefore unable to present their concerns. These, in addition to the direct impacts, would include the inequitable distribution of risk and reward in the industry, and the potential risks to economic well-being, to governments, to the environment as well as those to public health. The life-cycle of the shale gas industry is not yet clear; there are widely varying estimates as to the length of time for which a well would be viable but it is likely to be short in the context of a community’s experience and the well-being of future generations.

Mistakes in this industry can be very large and very costly and it is therefore not enough simply to have rules which regulate its activities. Dr. Cleary’s recommendations to her government therefore included the setting up of various consultative and overseeing projects and groups, a genuine dialogue between communities, governments, academics and the industry, an effective role for local government, the public reporting of data and a balanced distribution of the risks and rewards.

She closed by emphasising that final decisions have to be made by the communities who would have to live with shale gas exploitation and its consequences.

Questions were invited from the audience and these were numerous and detailed, including issues of water contamination, the length of time needed before public health effects would be assessed, the unlikelihood of claims that fracking could be carried out ‘without chemicals’ and the implications of the industry’s exemption, in the United States, from key environmental legislation.

A statement was read on behalf of Dr. Geralyn McCarron, a GP originally from Fermanagh and now working in Australia, who has witnessed the severe health problems created by the shale gas industry in Queensland. Her statement was featured in our last post and is available here.

Further questions concerned the proposed study by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency into the feasibility and consequences of fracking in Ireland, and the absence from its draft terms of reference of any health impact assessment, the possibility of pilot projects, the need for, and general absence of baseline studies and the fact that, to date, the New Brunswick government have not implemented any of Dr. Cleary’s recommendations. There was some criticism of Dr. Cleary for her clear position, stated at the outset, that she would not enter into the political debate as to the general advisability of otherwise of shale gas exploitation, but that her role, as she saw it, was the provision of information.

Some criticism was also made of FFAN for discussing issues of regulation rather than simply calling for an outright ban on fracking. FFAN’s position is that shale gas exploitation using fracking is a dangerous and unnecessary activity which should not go ahead in Fermanagh or elsewhere. In order to achieve this end it is vital to inform the public and other decision-makers of all the issues and potential effects of the industry. Ultimately it is the responsibility of local people to decide whether or not they want fracking in Fermanagh. If they do not, each individual needs to speak out clearly to ensure that his or her voice is heard by those elected to represent us.

Finally, closing remarks were given by Dr John Graham, who is a retired public health physician who has moved back to Fermanagh having grown up there and trained at Queen’s. He was a health service chief executive in Germany and the Middle East and worked as a medical policy director in Whitehall. He commissioned a major international epidemiological research programme to investigate Gulf War Syndrome and worked in Washington DC for the White House in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine.

John drew upon his own experience in relation to Gulf War Syndrome to emphasise the vital importance of obtaining firm evidence before irrevocable decisions are made and in particular the necessity for the Irish EPA and any other reporting body to include health impact assessments in their analysis.

The evening was a valuable opportunity for people in Fermanagh and beyond, especially those concerned with public health, to discover more about the potential side-effects of shale gas development. In particular, Dr. Cleary’s presentation encouraged the audience to become more aware of the gaps in our current knowledge and the need for comprehensive analysis of medical, environmental, social and economic factors before potentially disastrous decisions are made. FFAN are grateful to Dr. Cleary for giving up her valuable personal time, while on holiday, to speak on this subject, to the other speakers, the Killyhevlin Hotel and to all who attended the event.