Health Impacts of Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction

By April 29, 2015 News No Comments

Evidence submitted to CWaC Working Group for Meeting 2, Environment

Health Impacts of Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction

Over the past few years the health impacts of Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction have been well documented in both The United States – where it is predominantly shale gas and Fracking – and in Australia – where it is Coal Seam Gas, the Australian equivalent of Coal Bed Methane.

Worryingly, the symptoms experienced by people living in close proximity to the gas fields in both continents are very similar. Common symptoms include nosebleeds, sore eyes, nausea and vomiting, skin irritation and rashes, joint and muscle pains, breathing problems and headaches. Particularly affected are the young, old and unwell.

There is an increasing amount of scientific evidence, from both USA and Australia, which relates these health problems to the chemicals associated with unconventional gas and oil extraction – be it fracking or coal bed methane. These are the chemicals used in the drilling and associated processes, those contained in the produced water and drilling muds, and those emitted by venting, flaring and fugitive emissions (leaks) from the wells.

Both the coal seams and the shale rock naturally contain many toxic chemicals, which pose no threat to us when left so far underground. These include,

– heavy metals (metals of environmental concern), such as lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic

– toxic volatile organics (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – benzene is highly carcinogenic, toluene is a known neurotoxin

– NORMs (naturally occurring radioactive materials) such as uranium, radium and radon gas

These chemicals are understandably found in the produced water, but more worringly have also been found in the air and groundwater in the proximity of the drilling sites. The produced water will also contain chemicals used in the drilling process, potentially hundreds of products can be used in drilling fluids, ranging from the relatively benign to the highly toxic, some may not be disclosed, others will have trade names.

Venting, flaring and fugitive emissions, as well as releasing methane into the atmosphere, release other toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, ozone and nitrogen oxides. Hydrogen sulphide is extremely toxic, affecting the nervous system.

In a study in Tara, Australia, children were reported to have spontaneous nose bleeds, particularly after playing outside. One third of the children studied reported paraesthesia (symptoms which could relate to neurotoxicity, such as pins and needles, burning or tingling) and over 70% reported headaches. (1)

A report on the analysis of over 124,000 births in Colorado, released only in January 2014, found that in areas with the highest number of gas wells there was a 30% increase in the number of babies born with congenital heart defects compared to areas where there were no wells within a 10 mile radius. Babies in the areas with the highest numbers of gas wells were two times more likely to have a neural tube defect (eg spina bifida) than those with no wells within a 10 mile radius. (2)

A study by Yale University found almost 40% of people living less than one kilometre from a natural gas well reported upper respiratory symptoms, compared to 18% of people living over 2 kilometres away. (3)

In 2013, the New South Wales state government introduced a two kilometre buffer zone around urban areas and certain agricultural infrastructure. Because of this, and other measures introduced by the Australian Federal Government regarding potential contamination of water supplies, some Coal Bed Methane companies, including Dart Energy, have withdrawn from Australia to pursue activities elsewhere.

In a 2013 study, surface and groundwater near sites experiencing high levels of unconventional gas activity in Colorado contained endocrine-disrupting chemicals and showed moderate to high levels of endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) activity, while samples taken from sites with little drilling showed little EDC activity. Exposure to EDCs can increase the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological, and other diseases, especially in children and young organisms. (4)

A 2012 study involving animals living near gas drilling operations found that “Documentation of cases in six states strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses and wildlife” and states that “Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom sweeping the world will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.” (5)

Unexplained cancer clusters are occurring in areas close to gas production, breast cancer rates are rising in parts of Texas, compared to a fall in breast cancer rates in general across the States. Breast Cancer UK has called for a moratorium on all exploration and exploitation licensing in all EU countries (including the UK) and a comprehensive review of EU policies which pertain to Fracking. (6)

The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have stated that air toxics associated with oil and gas extraction activities can cause cancer and other serious health defects. (7)

The US PEHSU (Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units) reports about the special susceptibility of children “Children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards. They eat, drink, and breathe more than adults on a pound for pound basis. Research has also shown that children are not able to metabolize some toxicants as well as adults due to immature detoxification processes. Moreover, the fetus and young child are in a critical period of development when toxic exposures can have profound negative effects.” (8)

Only this July, the Concerned Health Professionals of New York stated that “Our examination of the peer-reviewed medical and public health literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health.” (9)

The regulatory authorities keep telling us that these health problems will not be seen in the UK because of the ‘gold standard regulations’, however in February 2014 the SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) stated that it cannot guarantee it will be able to monitor potential gas leaks from Dart Energy’s proposed Coal Bed Methane activities at Airth. (10)

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, in their report on Shale Gas and Fracking, state that “Regulation of the industry in the UK is currently inadequate” (11) and the British Medical Journal, commenting on a report by Public Health England, say that “the conclusion that shale gas operations present a low risk to public health is not substantiated by the literature.” (12)

The potential legacy that unconventional gas and oil extraction could leave us with is unthinkable, do we really want this for our future, and more importantly our children’s and grandchildren’s future?

For more detailed information please see the ‘Falkirk against Unconventional Gas’ website, CCoF witness statements for the Dart Energy Public Enquiry March/April 2014,

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith and Dr Geralyn McCarron

More details about the health impacts and toxicology of individual chemicals and endocrine disruptors can be found on Wikipedia.