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Fracking is 'low risk to public health'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed

31st October 2013 - A campaign by environmentalists opposed to fracking has received a setback after a health watchdog said the risk to health and the environment from shale gas extraction is low if operations are properly run and regulated.

A report by Public Health England acknowledges reports of environmental and health hazards in countries where fracking operations are taking place but says these typically stem from operational failures and lack of regulation.

What is fracking?

Shale gas is a natural gas found in shale, a fine grained sedimentary rock.

Shale gas is typically methane but may contain small quantities of other gases including hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other hydrocarbons.

Shale gas differs from conventional sources of gas and oil because it is stored in the rock itself rather than in reservoirs where the hydrocarbon has migrated.


In order to extract gas from the shale, a process called hydraulic fracturing - also known as fracking - is used. A bore hole is drilled into the deep rock and water is pumped at extremely high pressure to create small fractures or cracks in the shale. These fractures allow the gas to escape from the shale and flow into the well bore where it is carried back to the surface.

Chemicals are often added to the water to improve the efficiency of the fracturing process and these include friction reducers, surfactants, gelling agents, scale inhibitors, acids, corrosion inhibitors, antibacterial agents and clay stabilisers.

'A risky gamble'

Environmentalists opposed to fracking say the technique is risky and a gamble that the UK should not take.

There is no commercial shale gas extraction taking place in the UK and so far only limited test drilling has taken place.

Friends of the Earth say that in the US, where shale gas is being extracted commercially, there is evidence that carcinogenic fracking chemicals have leaked into groundwater and hazardous pollutants have been monitored in the air close to drilling sites.

They also argue that using shale gas is incompatible with meeting fossil fuel targets and could hit investment in renewable energy.

Low risk

The Public Health England report draws on information taken from countries where fracking is already taking place. It says there is, to date, little authoritative research into the health effects of extraction. However, Dr John Harrison, director of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, says in a statement: "Good on-site management and appropriate regulation of all aspects of exploratory drilling, gas capture as well as the use and storage of fracking fluid is essential to minimise the risks to the environment and health."

The report says any problems already encountered in operations abroad may not be replicated in the UK because of our different geology and extraction methods.

Public Health England acknowledges that the report is a draft and that further work is needed to further assess the potential health impact of shale gas extraction. It says the drilling of exploratory wells in the UK offers an opportunity to collect missing data.

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