Paul Mobbs 31st March 2015
Medact, the organization of health professionals for a safer, fairer and better world, has called for a five year moratorium on fracking due to its serious hazards to public health, writes Paul Mobbs. Their new report is a powerful challenge to government policy that cannot be ignored.
The arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming. There are clear grounds for adopting the precautionary principle and prohibiting fracking.
Medact, the UK-based public health group concerned with the social and ecological determinants of health, have published their long-awaited report on the impacts of fracking upon public health. First announced last year, following Public Health England’s questionable report into the impacts of shale gas, Medact’s review considers a number of existing reviews of the evidence of ‘fracking’ on public health. Given the likely public health consequences of climate change, it also examines claim that shale gas might aid the transition towards a low carbon energy system. The conclusion of the report, which is likely to beget further vitriol from the UK’s pro-fracking lobby, is clear: “On the basis of our existing knowledge, it would be both prudent and responsible to call for, at the very least, a five year moratorium on all activities related to shale gas development … ”
Donna Ann Ward, co-founder of CoWatchingOil LA, overlooks the Murphy Oil fracking site in residential Los Angeles. She and many other Angelinos believe that fracking wells in the city are responsible for severe public health impacts. Photo: Sarah Craig / Faces of Fracking via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Unlike ‘official’ bodies, Medact actually reviewed the evidence
The report reviews a number of existing studies from public health agencies, as well as a wide range of journal papers. For example:
• The December 2014 review of evidence by the New York State Department of Health;
• An August 2014 report for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy by the Independent Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing;
• A study carried out in July 2014 for the Maryland Departments of Environment and Health by the University of Maryland School of Public Health;
• The April 2014 study by The Council of Canadian Academies; and
• A 2012 environmental impacts study for the European Commission prepared by AEA Technology.
This last study is notable in that, despite its relatively early date, from the available evidence on environmental effects its screening exercise determined that many aspects of shale gas were “high risk”.
And yet, when Public Health England reviewed AEA Technology’s report for the UK Government they concluded that the risks were likely to be low. This dismissal of risk by Public Health England, in favour of the Government’s belief in ‘gold-plated regulation’, is the starting point for Medact’s review.
This view was outlined in their letter to the British Medical Journal, signed by the report’s authors and 18 other UK public health professionals, regarding the need for precautionary action to prohibit ‘fracking’ rather than regulate it:
“Fracking is an inherently risky activity that produces hazardous levels of air and water pollution that can have adverse impacts on health. The heavy traffic, noise and odour that accompanies fracking, as well as the socially disruptive effects of temporary ‘boomtowns’ and the spoilage of the natural environment are additional health hazards …
“The arguments against fracking on public health and ecological grounds are overwhelming. There are clear grounds for adopting the precautionary principle and prohibiting fracking.”
Government turning a blind eye to fracking waste and toxins
In assessing the evidence on the impacts of shale gas extraction, Medact found that there were many more and complex effects upon the environment and public health than the Government’s reviews have been willing (or politically constrained) to acknowledge.
While there has been discussion about earthquakes and water pollution, there has been little consideration given to the trace contaminants of shale gas – and how these affect public health.
Nor is there any realistic assessment of the waste management implications of shale gas development – and how the large volumes of toxic solids, liquids and gases generated by the process will be safely dealt with.
Given their significance, Medact’s report includes a supplementary paper specifically on the toxic contaminants associated with the process.
The practical problem, and the implicit strength of the Government’s call for ‘regulation’ in response to criticism is that it defers the need to produce reasoned solutions today – allowing the policy to proceed unhindered.
This approach, as the report outlines, stores up a whole range of uncertainties over health and environmental impacts which, at present, have no quantifiable answers.
The ‘known unknowns’ of fracking
The Medact report poses three key ‘known unknowns’ in relation to the Government’s policy on ‘fracking’:
• Firstly, we have incomplete knowledge, caused by a lack of information about fracking operations in the US and elsewhere which has hampered attempts to conduct evidence-based public health studies;
• Secondly, fracking is a relatively new activity and, as acknowledge by The Council of Canadian Academies, evidence about the longer term cumulative impacts of fracking are generally not yet available and difficult to predict reliably; and
• Thirdly, human exposure to the risks and hazards associated with ‘fracking’ will vary from site to site, depending on a host of geological, social, demographic, agricultural and economic factors – meaning that health impacts will be unevenly and often unfairly distributed between and within local communities.
The report goes on to state: “For these reasons, although one can state categorically that fracking poses threats to human health, the precise level of risk cannot be known with certainty.
“Assessing the level of risk requires careful judgement based on the available evidence and an appropriate attitude towards the precautionary principle, whilst considering contextual factors and the potential benefits of fracking.”
In addition to Medact’s own report, they commissioned an additional study produced jointly by the UCL Energy Institute, Warwick Business School and UK Energy Research Centre. This sets ten evidence-based conditions which unconventional gas production needs to satisfy in order to demonstrate its viability and sustainability.
As this paper states in relation to this list of conditions, “most if not all of them are not [met] at present”. The paper concludes:
“Given the current incomplete state of knowledge about shale gas and its potential role in a low-carbon transition, we suggest that policy makers should take as their basis for energy policy that there will be no shale gas produced domestically and plan their gas security strategy accordingly.”
A five-year public health moratorium
In the conclusions to their report, Medact highlight the inconsistencies between the reviews carried out by various medical and scientific organisations from different countries, and the paucity of evidence underpinning the UK Government’s policy conclusions.
They also note the growing number of state or national governments who have concluded, on the basis of the presently available evidence, that the risks and harms associated with ‘fracking’ outweigh the potential benefits.
Given the state of our knowledge of ‘fracking’ today, Medact consider it prudent and responsible to call for a five year moratorium on all activities related to shale gas development. During this time public health agencies should review all new published research, and carry out a debate on the uncertainties which are identified.
In the present media tit-for-tat of claim and counter-claim, Medact’s report is a positive contribution to the evidence-based debate over ‘fracking’ in Britain. I am sure that those campaigning against the process will find much in it that will inform and improved their work.
However, in the current political climate, exemplified by the rejection of the Environmental Audit Committee’s recent call for a moratorium on future development, I believe Medact’s review will be officially ignored.
The positive point is that the industry funded Task Force on Shale Gas (TFSG) has just begun its own review of the health and environmental impacts of unconventional gas extraction. Medact’s report, given its scope and source material, sets a high bar for the TFSG to reach if their report is to be considered an honest and reasoned review of current evidence.
The Government’s policy on ‘fracking’ is not based upon a reasoned consideration of evidence. It is an ideologically-driven policy – based upon a mistaken pursuit of economic growth at all costs, and which supports fossil fuels irrespective of their consequences for human health, climate change and wider environmental sustainability.
Medact’s report adds to the growing indictment of the UK’s current energy policy, and its implications for our future well-being.
Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).
The report: ‘Health & Fracking: the impacts & opportunity costs’ is published by Medact.
The letter: ‘Public Health England’s draft report on shale gas extraction’ is by Dr Robin Stott et al and published in the British Medical Journal.
A fully referenced version of this article is available on-line.