Fracking in Scotland could make workers sick, say campaigners

Allowing fracking in Scotland could pose “serious risks” to the health of workers, according to a new analysis by campaigners.

Over 150 studies have linked fracking chemicals to health problems, they say. US experts warn that silica dust from the fracking industry can cause permanent lung damage.

More than 40,000 objections to introducing fracking are expected to be lodged with the Scottish Government before its public consultation comes to an end on 31 May. Ministers say they will decide whether or not to ban the industry before the end of the year.

Fracking involves pumping fluids down boreholes to hydraulically fracture rocks deep underground to release tiny pockets of shale gas. The gas can be used to heat homes or to make plastics.

The petrochemical giant, Ineos, imports gas from US fracking fields to its complex at Grangemouth. The company is also bidding to frack large areas of central Scotland and the north of England, and has recently being buying up major parts of the North Sea oil industry.

The UK government backs fracking in England, but the Scottish Government has had a moratorium on the industry since January 2015. The Scottish Parliament voted narrowly in favour of banning fracking in June 2016.

New research from the digital campaign group 38 Degrees says that fracking workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals. One is benzene, which the American Cancer Society links to leukaemia.

If silica dust from the sand used in the fracking process is inhaled it can damage lungs and in the long term cause silicosis. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded there was “an inhalation health hazard” for fracking workers.

Researchers from the University of Missouri examined more than 150 studies on the health effects of fracking chemicals. They concluded that there was “evidence to suggest there is cause for concern for human health.”

Kathy Jenkins, from the trade union group, Scottish Hazards, said: “We firmly believe that Scottish workers and the Scottish population should not be guinea pigs in a national experiment with fracking as so many UK workers were with asbestos.”

The trade union Unison opposes fracking. “There is growing evidence of a variety of health problems being associated with fracking,” said the union’s head of public affairs in Scotland, Dave Watson.

“Common sense dictates that drinking and breathing cancer-causing agents will take its toll. On safety, we should follow the precautionary principle when the evidence is inconclusive.”

Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of 38 Degrees in Scotland, said: “The risks involved in allowing fracking clearly outweigh any possible benefits. It’s simply not worth gambling with people’s health in order to give this risky form of energy a shot.”

Over 20,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Scottish Government to permanently ban fracking. In addition, 16,000 have emailed ministers objecting to the technology, and 5,000 signed postcards.

More than 30 community and campaign groups are also lodging objections. “The massive public response clearly demonstrates Scotland’s overwhelming rejection of fracking,” said Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“These numbers must surely convince the minister that a full, legal ban is the only sensible option for Scotland.”

Ineos insisted it was proud to be leading shale gas extraction in the UK. “We believe that the industrial heartlands of Britain will once again thrive because of this technology,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We have seen the revival of US manufacturing on the back of shale gas and we believe this new technology will bring significant investment in jobs, local economies and communities.”

She added: “As Ineos continues to go from strength to strength worker safety remains our top priority as evidenced by our continually improving safety record.”

The industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), accused critics of unnecessarily spreading fear. Its submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation argued that the evidence that fracking harmed health was inadequate or weak.

UKOOG’s chief executive, Ken Cronin, maintained that risks from hazardous substances would be avoided or reduced by safety regulation. “The environmental regulator would not authorise the use of hazardous chemicals, and the use of silica, which is not unique to our industry, is already regulated,” he said.

The Scottish Government stressed that no fracking can take place in Scotland because of its moratorium. Ministers will come to a “considered judgement” after the consultation responses have been independently analysed and published.

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 28 May 2017.

Photo thanks to Kirsi Jansa.

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