“Fracking inherently risky” UK doctors find, arguing for a moratorium

Doctor holding a stethoscope
Source: DollarPhotoClub

A report published by a medical charity which campaigns for global health on issues related to conflict, poverty and the environment, prompted a number of high-profile doctors to publish an open letter to the British Medical Journal calling for a 5-year moratorium on fracking in the UK.

The report entitled “Health & Fracking: the impacts & opportunity costs” published by Medact charity, concludes that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas poses significant risks to public health and calls for an immediate moratorium to allow time for a full and comprehensive health and environmental impact assessment (HIA) to be completed.

The report has been supported by a letter published in the British Medical Journal, signed by Medact, the Climate and Health Council, and senior health professionals including: Dr Clare Gerada, former chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Helen Gordon, chief executive of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and Dr Sheila Adam, former deputy chief medical officer.

The letter states that “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.”

It goes on to argue that environmental concerns associated with fracking will be heightened in the UK where the population is much denser than in the U.S. Furthermore – as methane is a potent greenhouse gas in its own right, and when burnt, produces carbon dioxide – shale extraction would undermine UK’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and be incompatible with global efforts to prevent global warming.

The letter concludes that the arguments against shale exploration in the UK are so overwhelming that “there are clear grounds for adopting the precautionary principle and prohibiting fracking”.

Both the letter and the underlying Medact report were well received by the anti-fracking lobby which welcomed the fact that it considered a number of existing reviews of the evidence of ‘fracking’ on public health.

The report is also at odds with the earlier report by Public Health England which found the risks of public exposure to dangerous chemicals was “low if the operations are properly run and regulated”.

Medact director and report co-author Dr David McCoy questions this diagnosis.

“[Firstly] there is evidence of regulatory capacity being eroded as a result of staff and budget cuts,” he said. “The second is that it does appear as though there’s been so much pressure to promote fracking that there seems to be a readiness to compromise on safety in order to make fracking commercially viable.”

“We’re not trying to be alarmist and we’re not trying to over-egg the risks,” he continued. “And I certainly know that there’s a lot of anti-fracking groups that really exaggerate the risks of fracking and I don’t think that that’s particularly helpful. But on the other side I think that there’s an exaggeration of the extent to which fracking is safe and can be effectively regulated. What’s really important is that we have to live with this holistically and comprehensively.”

The report’s findings along with the accompanying letter were fundamentally rejected by the shale industry, which pointed out that all fracking sites are subject to an environmental impact assessment before receiving planning consent. CEO of UK Onshore Oil and Gas Ken Cronin said: “Medact’s report fundamentally fails to understand the regulatory system put in place in the UK to cover shale gas exploration.”

The trustworthiness of the report was also put into question when it became known that one of the contributors, Mike Hill, was a candidate in the upcoming general election standing on an anti-fracking platform in his home constituency of Fylde, Lancashire. Mr Hill – who contributed to three out of six chapters of the report – is also a member of an anti-fracking group Defend Lytham, and has previously written reports on the subject for Friends of the Earth.

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