BMJ Editorial 26 April 2014:
"The optimism that fail-safe engineering solutions can ensure safe shale gas development may result more from a triumph of marketing than a demonstration of experience.
Public Health England's draft report thoroughly assesses the peer re...viewed scientific literature on the public health implications of extracting shale gas. It accurately presents the problems of air and water quality, and it correctly recognises that many uncertainties surround the public health implications of extracting shale gas. The review was rigorous in its presentation of the evidence, but there are problems with its conclusions.
The review appropriately acknowledges differences in geology and regulation between the United States and the United Kingdom. Yet, in a leap of faith unsubstantiated by scientific evidence, its authors suggest that many of the environmental and public health problems experienced in the US would probably not apply to the UK. Unfortunately, the conclusion that shale gas operations present a low risk to public health is not substantiated by the literature. The correct conclusion that Public Health England should have drawn is that the public health impacts remain undetermined and that more environmental and public health studies are needed.
Furthermore, the report incorrectly assumes that many of the reported problems experienced in the US are the result of a poor regulatory environment. This position ignores many of the inherent risks of the industry that no amount of regulation can sufficiently remedy, such as well casing cement failures and accidental spillage of waste water. There is no reason to believe that these problems would be different in the UK, and the report provided little evidence to the contrary, despite repeated assertions that regulations will ensure the safe development of shale gas extraction.
The report also has other shortfalls. More attention should have been paid to drilling in areas that are densely populated. In the US, much of the extraction of shale gas occurs in sparsely populated areas. This would not be the case in the UK. Studies suggest that health risks are modified by geographical distance of residences from active shale gas extraction. Recent evidence suggests a higher prevalence of some adverse birth outcomes for those living in closer proximity.
Public health is an evidence based discipline and findings from well designed studies should form the backbone of public policy. There is a need for an assessment of the public health infrastructure and the ability of health professionals to respond to the risks presented by the development of the shale gas industry. Rigorous, quantitative epidemiological research is needed to assess the risks to public health and data are just starting to emerge.
As investigations of shale gas extraction in the US continually suggested, assurances of safety are no proxy for adequate protection"