More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function. With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure.
Ineos chairman Jim Ratcliffe yesterday announced his company's £640 million new investment into hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, asserting:
"Ineos has also hired some of the world's leading shale gas experts to make sure the gas can be safely extracted in an environmentally responsible way."
He echoed similar statements by the independent peer Lord Smith of Finsbury - until 2005 Chris Smith, Labour MP for Islington South & Finsbury - made during an interview on BBC TV's The Daily Politics programme.
More recently Smith has been the chairman of the Environment Agency, holding the post for five years until he retired at the end of June 2014. He was also Tony Blair's shadow environment secretary from 1992-94, and went on to shadow the health portfolio.
At issue was Smith's new role as chairperson of an 'independent' inquiry into fracking, the Shale Gas Task Force - which will be funded by the fracking industry. He insisted that fracking would be "safe" if properly regulated.
Which side is the Environment Agency on?
The Daily Politics presenter asked if the Task Force would ever publish a report that was critical of fracking, despite the provenance of his inquiry's funding. Smith insisted: "If that is what the evidence points to, that is what we will say."
A week ago he told the Guardian: "We will assess the existing evidence, ask for new contributions and lead a national conversation around this vitally important issue."
Just before he left office at the Environment Agency, I wrote to Lord Smith about his support of fracking as revealed, for example, in a May 2012 lecture to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Shale gas would be a "useful addition" to the UK's "energy mix", he told his audience, provided that certain requirements were met.
National anti-fracking group Fracked Off were unimpressed. "Lord Smith's endorsement of commercial-scale fracking in the UK suggests the Environment Agency are either ignorant of the facts or ignoring them", said Frack Off activist Nathan Roberts. "The Environment Agency is not regulating fracking at present as they do not consider it an activity that requires a permit and hence are not actively monitoring the activity."
In my letter to Lord Smith I specifically raised concerns over radon risks from fracking, as extensively aired in the US, but barely at all in the UK, and the health hazards posed by endocrine disrupter chemicals - so called 'gender-bender' chemical additives - used in fracking fluids.
In his letter of response dated 8 July, Lord Smith, confirmed the Environment Agency was "aware of the use of endocrine disrupters in some parts of the USA".
He went on the stress "the way we will regulate shale gas fracking in England will reduce the risk from endocrine disrupters by appropriate management of chemicals and the treatment and disposal of flow back fluid." Note - he did not say 'eliminate', but only "reduce the risk" of these hazardous chemicals.
What about the radon?
On radon gas risks, Smith merely passed the buck to Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive, two other regulatory quango, selectively citing soothing reassurances from PHE's recent Review of the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of shale gas extraction, published on 25th June 2014.
PHE did indeed consider it "unlikely" that shale gas extraction and related activities "would lead to significant exposure form outdoor radon or indoor levels in nearby homes." But its advice did not stop there. The review also 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."
Radon is unquestionably the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. 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."
Even worse, when radon decays it produces a rapid-fire decay chain of four intensely radioactive metals, then the longer-lived 210Pb lead radio-isotope with its 22.3 year half life. The monatomic radioactive particles readily bind onto dust and aerial microparticles, then to lodge deep in the lungs once inhaled.
Hence there is undoubtedly a risk of radon gas being pumped into citizens' homes as part of the shale gas stream. Unless the gas is stored for a month or more to allow the radon's radioactivity to naturally reduce, this is potentially very dangerous, depending of course on initial radon levels.
(Note: this is based on 222Rn's 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.)
A host of chemicals - eight of them especially 'toxic to mammals'
On 13 August this year, a team of experienced research scientists presented the fruit of new research on fracking hazards to the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Dr William Stringfellow, an environmental engineer at the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported that his research team - jointly with the University of the Pacific - had scoured databases and reports to compile a list of substances commonly used in fracking.
These included gelling agents to thicken the fluids, biocides to keep microbes from growing, sand to prop open tiny cracks in the rocks and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion.
The scientists found that most fracking compounds will require treatment before being released to the environment, and also identified eight substances, including biocides, as being particularly toxic to mammals.
Also, late last year, academic researchers at the University of Missouri, released the results of research they had conducted into the known chemicals used in fracking.
Their research paper, Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region, published in the journal Endocrinology 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.
Dr Susan Nagel, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at the MU School of Medicine, put it starkly: "More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function. With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure."
Liz Truss, Environment Secretary (and a former oil & gas executive)
Lord Smith offered me the chance to discuss the matter further with the EA's onshore oil and gas team, which I certainly will do.
Following my correspondence with Lord Smith, two months ago I took up the cudgels with new Environment Secretary, Liz Truss - who happens to be a former oil & gas industry executive. Following her appearance before the Environment Select committee, writing:
"I listened very carefully to your testimony before the Defra select committee on 10 September on environmental impacts and implications of hydraulic fracturing.
"There are a number of environmental health impacts neither committee members nor yourself raised or addressed (although Dr Leinster mentioned radioactivity briefly in passing). I have set out some details below, along with some supporting articles. This should help Defra develop environmental protection policy re.fracking through being evidence-led, as you affirmed is your position to the select committee.
"I would be very interested to know your views as the new SOS - not your officials' views, as they have been in post for a while - on these matters."
The reply finally reached me last month - predictably down-playing the dangers. It quoted the PHE review which concludes that "the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated."
However it mysteriously left out the closing sentence of the paragraph: "In order to ensure this, regulation needs to be strongly and robustly applied."
And given the Agency's extreme underfunding and poor performance on river quality, sea water quality and regulation of waste managers (the topic of a devasting critique on BBC Radio4 a few weeks ago), what exactly are the chances of that?
I would very much like to know Ineos' chairman Jim Ratcliffe's views on the radon and gender-bender risks - and whether he will welcome the "strongly and robustly applied" regulation of his activities that PHE insists is needed to ensure that fracking can be conducted safely.
David Lowry is an environmental policy and research consultant.