Chemical contamination from the fracking industry could increase the risk of childhood leukaemia, according to a major new study by US scientists.
The study, published by Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, has prompted renewed calls for the Scottish Government to ban fracking for underground shale gas. Ministers are due to publish reports on the safety of the industry in the next few weeks.
US scientists have found 55 fracking pollutants that could cause cancer, including 20 associated with leukaemia or lymphoma. “These findings support the hypothesis that exposure to unconventional oil and gas development could increase the risk of leukaemia,” the study concludes.
The pollutants linked to leukaemia include benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and several toxic types of hydrocarbons. More than 80 per cent of the 1,177 water pollutants and 143 air pollutants from the US fracking industry couldn’t be assessed for cancer risk because of a lack of data.
Researchers point out that fracking is now taking place in 30 US states, and millions of people live within one mile of a fracking site. The study, published in the journal ‘Science of the Total Environment’, argues that links with cancer and childhood leukaemia must be further investigated.
“To our knowledge, our analysis represents the most expansive review of carcinogenicity of hydraulic fracturing-related chemicals in the published literature,” said lead author Nicole Deziel, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
“Because children are a particularly vulnerable population, research efforts should first be directed toward investigating whether exposure to hydraulic fracturing is associated with an increased risk.”
According to Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, the Yale study was important. “This is a serious matter that should be factored in to any decisions about fracking in Scotland,” he said.
“Air and water pollutants from unconventional gas activity globally may present very serious health threats to millions of people worldwide. A number of these pollutants are sure to be present if fracking gets underway in Scotland, with risks to both the general population and groups such as children through leukaemia.”
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, warned that the Yale study would alarm many. “This study demonstrates what a major gamble we would be taking with public health if fracking were allowed to go ahead in Scotland,” she said.
“An industry that can expose local people to numerous cancer-causing toxins should simply not be permitted. People just don’t want this dirty, dangerous industry.”
The Yale study, however, was dismissed by the Grangemouth petrochemical giant, Ineos, which has licences from the UK government to frack large areas of the central belt. For the chemicals the study lists to cause contamination would require a failure in equipment or process, the company pointed out.
“In the UK, all hydraulic fracture fluids are fully disclosed and must be non-hazardous to ground water and all process emissions and wastes are addressed through the regulatory planning and permitting process,” said Ineos shale operations director Tom Pickering.
“No development would obtain nor retain a permit to operate should it not demonstrate compliance with environmental standards set to protect the environment and health to the regulatory authority’s satisfaction.”
UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), which represents the fracking industry, criticised the study for “lurid and alarmist headlines”, pointing out that it accepted that the presence of chemicals didn’t on its own confirm a cancer risk.
“A risk might exist, but if it cannot be physically connected by a pathway to a human or animal then there is no cause for concern,” said UKOOG chief executive Ken Cronin.
“We must have this debate on the basis of factual evidence not headlines created to cause concern for local communities.”
The Scottish Government has had a moratorium on fracking since January 2015. It is due to publish studies on the environmental, health and economic impacts of the industry, and then conduct a public consultation over the winter before deciding whether or not to permit development in Scotland.
“These important health reports and other evidence justify our scepticism over the gung-ho approach of the UK Government who are ignoring the concerns of communities,” said energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse.
“The Scottish Government is instead taking a cautious and evidence-led approach to unconventional oil and gas,” he added. “The public consultation will be open to all and interest groups are encouraged to participate.”
Last week, the Irish Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a law to ban fracking, sending a bill to committee stage. There is also a ban in Northern Ireland and a moratorium in Wales, leaving only Westminster still keen on the controversial technology.
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 30 October 2016.