Medical Matters: What the frack?

We need to examine the health risks of fracking before granting licences, writes Muiris Houston


Fracking is regularly in the news. To say it has had a bad press would be an understatement. Although we are at least two years away from any possible licensing of the process, pending an Environmental Protection Agency report, an active anti-
fracking movement is well established here.

Over the Easter weekend a dance group even went to the World Irish Dancing Championships in London with an anti-fracking theme.

The 20 dancers from Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan – three of the counties known to be targeted by resource companies – dramatised their dance to reflect the story of farmers standing up to the threat of fracking in a rural community.

People campaigning against the controversial process can point to health and environmental issues in North America, and growing concern in Britain about the process.

Obtaining gas
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves drilling vertically, then horizontally, into shale rock to obtain methane or natural gas.

Water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the drilled wells, creating cracks in the adjacent rock and releasing the gases into the well.

The process requires dozens of chemicals to reduce heat and to prevent drill bits clogging. It has been criticised for having potential to contaminate groundwater and to induce movement underground.

An examination of the health aspects of fracking, published online this month by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), highlights a dearth of scientific studies.

Dr Charl Badenhorst, medical health officer for the Northern Health Authority in British Columbia, is concerned about the relative lack of independent impact assessments surrounding fracking. “There’s limited information available from a science point of view,” he says.

Dr Leslie Walleigh, a medical and occupational health consultant with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environment Health Project, is quoted in the CMAJ article as saying “the most common symptoms that residents blame on fracking are coughing, shortness of breath and worsening asthma”.

Pennyslvania is the location of the Marcellus shale deposit, one of the largest in the world.

The small number of studies already carried out suggest a need, at the very least, for caution.

A study published this year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examined data on births over a 13-year period relative to natural-gas drilling and found that babies born to families who lived in an area with more than 125 wells within a mile of their home had a 30 per cent greater prevalence of congenital heart defects than those with no wells within 10 miles of their homes. However, the researchers emphasise that the findings show correlation rather than cause.

A separate study looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5km radius of natural-gas fracking sites. It found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by almost half, from about 5.6 per cent to more than 9 per cent.

In Wyoming, a pair of environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer – an underground layer of water-bearing rock, or material such as gravel or sand from which groundwater can be extracted – found high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing.

The wells contained benzene at 50 times the safe level, as well as phenols, acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.

A formal inquiry by Public Health England, while declaring fracking safe if properly run and regulated, noted an analysis of water brought to the surface at the Cuadrilla Resources well in Preese Hall in Lancashire “found high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as elevated values of lead, magnesium, zinc, chromium and arsenic compared with the local mains water”.

And an editorial this month in the British Medical Journal rather pointedly concludes the experience of shale gas extraction in the US shows “assurances of safety are no proxy for adequate protection”.

Could the cross-Border Institute of Public Health please examine the health risks of fracking before any shale gas exploration licences are granted here?

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