Gas drilling rig in Colorado. Photo: Dave Parsons
Fracking in Scotland? The Lancet reports health impacts
While fracking in the UK might be in its infancy, and the INEOS announcement suggests significant industrial fracking across the densely populated Midland region of Scotland, a large amount of health impact data from the USA is now coming to light, summarised by a Correspondent in The Lancet , the leading medical journal. In the USA there are more than 1 million wells fracked.
Recent studies from the USA before, during, and after fracking have suggested an increased risk of adverse health events, such as congenital heart defects, and low Apgar scores – the very first test given to a new born child – in individuals living close to natural gas development (within a radius of 10 miles).
One major peer reviewed study, Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado, examined associations between maternal residential proximity to natural gas projects and birth outcomes. Researchers examined a retrospective cohort study of 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado.
They calculated natural gas well counts within a 10-mile radius of maternal residences to estimate maternal exposure to natural gas developments. The study found “an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of congenital heart disease and possibly neural tube defects.”
“Greater specificity in exposure estimates is needed to further explore these associations”, the study concludes.
A further report, Human health risk assessment of air emissions from development of unconventional natural gas resources, showed that “residents living half a mile or less from wells are at greater risk for health effects from natural gas drilling than are residents living over half a mile away from wells.”
Subchronic exposures to air pollutants during well completion activities present the greatest potential for health effects. The subchronic non-cancer hazard index for residents less than a half mile away was driven primarily by exposure to trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons.
Cumulative cancer risks were 10 in a million and 6 in a million respectively for residents living less than a half mile and over half a mile from wells. Benzene was the major contributor to risk.
Overall, such preliminary results makes the case for a precautionary approach to shale gas fracking, especially in areas of dense population. In his The Lancet Correspondence (20 June 2014), Mike Hill concludes that health effects resulting from air emissions during unconventional methane extraction “warrant further study. Prospective studies should focus on health effects associated with air pollution.”
It is questionable to consider any further fracking in the UK (exploratory or otherwise) until these prospective studies have been completed and the health impacts of fracking have been determined.
Fracking has already happened in the UK and is due to resume in close proximity to large urban populations. Hill estimates that this approach will use about 22 million litres of fracking fluid per well and will leave underground (free to migrate) about 88 million litres of fracking waste containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other materials at much higher concentrations than those found in drinking water. This is the case even when no chemicals are added at the surface.
The effects of truck movements, flaring, fracking waste treatment, compressors, noise pollution, generators, wireline logging, drilling, etc, should not be ignored.
According to reports, INEOS believes that locally sourced methane will further secure the future of its petrochemicals plant at Grangemouth, Firth of Forth. It has bought over 700 sq miles of fracking exploration licences in central Scotland. The company plans to import gas as feedstock for the Grangemouth plant.
An Ineos survey undertaken by YouGov shows 46% of people in Scotland oppose shale extraction. That figure only drops to 41% even after Ineos’s pledge to give 6% of revenues to local communities.