Beginner’s guide to fracking: 5 fracking and health

Serious Public Health concerns are beginning to be raised following recent medical research and reports into unconventional shale gas extraction.

The plan for Fermanagh: up to 60 multi well pads with up to 24 wells per pad. Each pad would be 6.5 acres in size and located approximately 1 mile apart. 40,000 acres of development, and may extend up to three times this size.


Experience from around the world has shown that fracking brings with it a very real risk of contamination of soil, water and air borne contamination. The full extent of future potential health problems caused by contamination from fracked wells is still unknown.

A 2012 study from America’s Cornell University, ‘Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health’, described fracking as “an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale”. Many diseases caused by contamination have a lag time of up to twenty years before people become ill. By then it is too late, you cannot reverse the effects of contamination on peoples health.

Even if the company manages to do ‘chemical free’ fracking, the flow back fluid which comes back up will be contaminated by oil and gas derivatives and heavy metals washes out from fractured rock. This means that millions of gallons of toxic fluid will come back up each well. This flow back fluid will contain varying amounts of the following chemicals with the associated health risks:

– BENZENE: Leukemia, cancers and neural tube defects (spina bifida)
– MERCURY: Brain and kidney damage and effects unborn children.
– ARSENIC: Cancer
– ETHYL-BENZENE: Respiratory disease, fatigue and headaches.
– TOLUENE: Birth defects and central nervous system damage.
– VOC’s: Endocrine disrupters


Recent medical reports and research into fracking state:
– 25% of the chemicals used could cause cancer and mutations, 37% could upset the endocrine system, 40-50% could affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems, and 90% could affect the skin, eyes and respiratory system. [Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, 2012]
– Silicosis lung damage from the airborne silica dust used in frack sand. [Esswein,2012]
– Increased risk of ill health, cancer and non-cancer, in people living near frack pads. [Air pollution control division, Colorado Department of public health, 2008]
– Irreversible lung damage caused by ground level ozone. This is produced when fugitive methane gases combine with diesel fumes of fracking machinery. (In Fermanagh, this ‘smog’ along with other air pollution from fracking will be blown over the rest of the county by thE prevailing westerly wind.) [The Endocrine Disruption Index, 2012]
– Sudden death, slow death, reproductive problems and nerve diseases have been shown in twenty four different fracking incidents involving hundreds of farm animals over six states in USA; mostly related to exposure from flowback fluid. Some of these animals are believed to have ended up in the human food chain. [Bamburger and Oswald, 2012]


Noise pollution from both lorries on the road and heavy site machinery will be a major problem in a rural county like Fermanagh, where frack pads are likely to be close to houses. The noise together with lights on around frack sites all night, will be a hinderance to sleep and can impact on both physical and mental health and well-being.

Short term industrialisation of rural areas results in –
– a ‘boom and bust’ economy that impacts negatively on public health.
– Social community upheaval creating inequality and resulting in increased mental health problems, domestic violence, crime, drug/alcohol abuse.

The Precautionary Principle must apply. Our Health is our real Wealth.
Full health impact assessments are required, not just environmental impact assessments.

To download this information as a printable pdf, please visit our flyers page.

British Medical Journal criticises safety of fracking

The world renowned British Medical Journal(BMJ) has strongly criticised false assurances of safety given by the recent Public Health of England report which opined that whilst unconventional shale gas extraction posed a risk to public human health, it would not pose a health threat to humans on the European side of the Atlantic.


The BMJ article, penned by Adam Law (Cornell Medical College), Jake Hays (PSE Health Energy), Seth B Shonkeff (PSE Health Energy) and Madelon Finkel (Cornell Medical College), draw attention to the fact that whilst the PHE Report acknowledges a real risk to public health, as shown by existing scientific research, the claim made by the report that the health risks will not exist for citizens of the UK and Ireland are theoretical at best.

“To the extent that they are technically and economically feasible, risk reduction technologies that mitigate adverse health outcomes should be deployed. However reviewing the public health aspects of the development of the shale gas industry requires more than merely gesturing to technological improvements that lack empirical data on their effectiveness in the real world. The optimism that fail-safe engineering solutions can ensure safe shale gas development may result more from a triumph of marketing than a demonstration of experience.”

oil fracturing drilling rig at dusk
oil fracturing drilling rig at dusk

The BMJ continues: “The [PHE] review appropriately acknowledges differences in geology and regulation between the United States and the United Kingdom. Yet in a leap of faith unsubstantiated by scientific evidence, its authors suggest that many of the environmental and public health problems experienced in the US would probably not apply to the UK. Unfortunately the conclusion that shale gas operations present a low risk to public health is not substantiated by literature.”

“Furthermore, the [PHE] report incorrectly assumes that many of the reported problems experienced in the US are the result of a poor regulatory environment. This position ignores many of the inherent risks of the industry that no amount of regulation can sufficiently remedy, such as well casing, cement failures, and accidental spillage of waste water. There is no reason to believe that these problems would be different in the UK, and the report provides little evidence to the contrary, despite repeated assertions that regulations will ensure safe development of shale gas extraction.”

The BMJ also draws attention to the fact that unconventional shale gas extraction, on this side of the atlantic, will be taking place in more densely populated areas, than usually seen in the US.

In conclusion the BMJ state that: “Rigorous, quantitative epidemiological research, is needed to assess the risks to public health, and data are just starting to emerge.”

To read the BMJ article in full, click here.

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.

Fuelling Ireland’s public health problems

Fuelling Ireland’s public health problems — Irish Medical Times. (click on link to read the article in full)

“[F]ive issues can be identified that raise concerns about the impact of fracking on health.   Firstly, the process of fracking uses a wide variety of chemicals,  including friction reducers, surfactants, gelling agents, scale inhibitors, acids, corrosion inhibitors, antibacterial agents and clay stabilisers. Additional naturally occurring heavy metals and radioactive materials may also be mobilised from the rock during its fracture, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, thorium and uranium and these may also interact with the chemicals in the fluid.

In addition, the possibility of accidental release of chemicals and gases through fire, vandalism, or spills and leaks from poor practices is an ongoing risk.

Toxic mud and fluid by-products from the drilling and fracking, as well as spills of oil and gas wastes, are not uncommon. The health impact of such chemicals depends on factors such as the toxicity, dose, route and duration of exposure, and the vulnerability of the people being affected…

Secondly, air may also be contaminated by volatile chemicals released during drilling (combustion from machinery and transport) and from other operations, during methane separation or by evaporation from holding ponds. Methane gas is also explosive….

Thirdly, fracking requires substantial amounts of water, 1.5 million gallons per well …  A shortage of water would pose considerable threats to health and well-being of people living in the area. The company proposes using some of the waste water for fracking. However, this will very possibly involve the burning off some of the toxic residues leading to additional air pollution, as well as storage difficulties.

Fourthly, the soil may be contaminated by drilling sludge, which may contain drilling mud, hydrocarbons, radioactive material and heavy metals. This would have serious consequences for grasslands used for leisure or agriculture purposes. The consumption of meat and or milk from animals grazing on such land would also give rise for concern.

Finally, the British Geological Survey states that it is well established that fluid injections can cause small earthquakes and fracking has been associated with two small quakes near Blackpool.

It is widely recognised that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses. The adoption of fracking is a step away from a solution to the problem of climate change. We must leave any remnants of fossil fuel in the ground, instead of seeking ever more expensive and environmentally destructive methods of extracting them. … In the interests of public health, we must not allow fracking in Ireland.

Any tragedy is upsetting; an avoidable tragedy is all the more so.”

(Dr. Elizabeth Cullen)