With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure.
In an interview in today's Times Lord Smith, outgoing chairman of the Environment Agency, opines that the environmental risks of fracking have been overstated.
"Provided it is done carefully and properly regulated, those fears are definitely exaggerated", said Smith - a former leading light in Labour's environment campaign ginger group, the Socialist Environment Resources Association.
"I don't agree with that analysis because we aren't yet ready to see 100% of our energy requirements being produced from renewables. Over the next 10-20 years we are going to have to use fossil fuels still and it's much better to use gas than coal."
Further infuriating campaigners, he expresses his conviction that Britain's national parks should be open to fracking. "I wouldn't rule it out because provided it's being done properly, the visual impact can be very limited indeed. It will depend on any individual location."
But what does the science tell us?
Answer: it depends on which scientific authorities you chose to pick. In a study published last month in the journal Energy Science & Engineering Professor Robert W. Howarth of Cornell University concludes that:
"both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger greenhouse gas (GHG ) footprint than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas and particularly for the primary uses of residential and commercial heating."
Yet fracking cheer-leader-in-chief, energy minister Michael Fallon, asserted in a written Parliamentary answer on 26 June that:
"In September 2013, DECC published a study by Professor David MacKay and Dr Tim Stone which gathered the available evidence on the potential greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from shale gas production and use in the UK and discusses the compatibility of shale gas production and use with UK and global climate change targets.
"The study concluded that with the right safeguards in place the net effect on GHG emissions from shale gas production in the UK will be relatively small. Indeed emissions from the production and transport of UK shale gas are likely to be lower than imported liquefied natural gas and gas piped from outside Europe, which shale gas is expected to replace."
So three professors are professing different views. Two are in the UK, paid advisors to Mr Fallon's fanatically pro-fracking energy department. The other is an independent academic in the US, publishing his research results in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
Who would you believe?
Gender bender chemicals in your water
There is also the study by independent academic researchers at the University of Missouri, 'Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region', published in the journal Endocrinology in 2013.
It found higher levels of hormone-disrupting ('gender-bender) activity in water located near fracking wells than in areas without drilling.
Endocrine disruptors interfere with the body's endocrine system, which controls numerous body functions with hormones such as the female hormone estrogen and the male hormone androgen.
Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as those studied in the MU research, has been linked by other research to cancer, birth defects and infertility.
"More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function", said Susan Nagel, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at the MU School of Medicine.
"With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure."
Radiation in your gas supply?
Additionally there is the prospective radon risk from fracked gas released in the gas stream as the shale rock is cracked underground, and pumped into the nation's kitchens and burned on hobs. The methane gas is burned as a fuel, but the inert radon remains in the room and is inhaled.
Radon gas contamination of homes is already the second highest cause of UK lung cancers after smoking - and that's according to the Health Protection Agency report on Radon and Public Health.
The government's own health advisory body, Public Heath England in its revised report, 'Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposure to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction', agrees this could be a future health hazard. This is what the PHE report actually states:
"If the natural gas delivery point were to be close to the extraction point with a short transit time, radon present in the natural gas would have little time to decay ... there is therefore, the potential for radon gas to be present in natural gas extracted from UK shale."
Moreover, Professor, James W. Ring, Winslow Professor of Physics Emeritus, Hamilton College in New York State stresses:
"The radon and natural gas coming from the shale mix together and travel together as the gas is piped to customers. This is a serious health hazard, as radon - being a gas - is breathed into the lungs and lodges there to decay, doing damage to the lung's tissue and eventually leading to lung cancer."
Fracked gas must be stored for a month before use
Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Using the general rule of thumb of 10 half-lives to decay to 1/1000 of original concentration, that would be 38 days, or roughly one month, depending on how radioactive it was to start.
Fracked gas would thus need to be stored for at least a month before being distributed to peoples' homes, to allow for this radioactive decay of radon.
In another detailed US study on radon risks, veteran physicist Dr Marvin Resnikoff estimated radon levels from the huge Marcellus gas field near New York as up to 70 times the average.
Dr Resnikoff's Radioactive Waste Management Associates group, now based in Vermont, used be to be based in Brooklyn, New York, hence its work on shale gas being piped to New York consumers. RWMA suggests that some shale gas deposits contain as much as 30 times the radiation found in normal background.
Telling the boss what he wants to hear?
It is clearly dangerous to ignore these serious public health warnings from America, who have much more experience with fracking than in the UK. So what is going on?
We seem to have a systemic culture of government advisors and agencies telling their political and departmental superiors exactly what they want to hear - regardless of the science.
This is a very dangerous tendency, known to give rise to the 'groupthink' phenomenon - which in NASA's case notoriously led to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. As Don McKenna, associate professor of Communication at Seton Hall University wrote of that dreadful tragedy:
"They had put the whole future of the space program on the shuttle. There was no way out. Overwhelming problems were just denied. It wasn't conscious deception. They were kidding themselves as much as anybody else."
With the UK government putting the whole future of its energy policy on fracking, we are at severe risk of repeating the experience - with appalling long term consequences for our public health.
Dr David Lowry is an environmental policy and research consultant. He does research for Paul Flynn MP, Green peeress Baroness Jones, and has worked for Caroline Lucas MP and Green MEPS Rebecca Harms (Germany) and Nuala Ahern (Ireland). He is currently a member of Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey's Geological Disposal Implementation Board ( for high activity radioactive waste).
- 'Green light for national park fracking' - by Ben Webster, The Times, 28th June 2014.
- 'A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas' by Professor Robert W. Howarth, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, New York, Energy Science & Engineering May 2014.
- 'MU Researchers Find Fracking Chemicals Disrupt Hormone Function'
- 'Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region', Endocrinology, 2013.
- Radon and Public Health - Report of an independent Advisory Group on Ionising Radiation: Docs RCE 11, HPA 2009.
- Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposure to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction - Public Health England 2014.
- 'Radon in Natural Gas from Marcellus Shale' By Marvin Resnikoff, Radioactive Waste Management Associates, January 10, 2012.
- 'The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster - A Study in Organizational Ethics', by Don McKenna, Seton Hall University.