Public Health England releases draft study of health impacts from shale gas extraction

Public Health England (PHE) is an agency under the UK’s Department of Health tasked with ensuring that the public is protected from infectious disease and environmental hazards. In October 2013, PHE released for public comment its draft Review of the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of the shale gas extraction. Due to the limited amount of shale gas drilling in the UK, PHE relied on literature and data from countries, such as the U.S., which already have commercial scale shale gas extraction operations. From the review of these materials, PHE identified several shale gas extraction activities that may impact surface and ground water, including
  • The production and storage of fracking fluid, flowback water, and other drilling by-products which may be spilled and then seep into subsurface aquifers or surface water resources.
  • Well blow-outs that may result in contamination of surface and ground water.
  • Injection of fracking fluids which may lead to contamination of aquifers if well integrity fails.
  • The improper treatment or disposal of wastewater during transportation off-site that may result in pollution of surface waters.
After analyzing these risks, PHE concluded that “the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and regulated. Most evidence suggests that contamination of groundwater, if it occurs, is most likely to be caused by leakage through the vertical borehole.” Additional findings include:
  • Good on-site management (well integrity, post operations, and appropriate storage and maintenance of hydraulic fracturing fluids and wastes) and appropriate regulation of all phases of gas exploration and development are “essential to minimize the risk to the environment and public health.”
  • Emissions which can impact local air quality come from a variety of shale gas extraction activities and sources, including drilling, flaring, diesel engines, storage tanks, and vehicles. 
  • All chemicals used in a hydraulic fracturing operation must be disclosed for a meaningful risk assessment.
PHE recognizes the need for continued work to more specifically define the potential health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development. For this continued work, PHE recommends baseline environmental monitoring in the vicinity of shale gas activities, broadening the review to encompass socio-economic impacts (i.e., increased traffic, impacts on local infrastructure, and worker migration), the disclosure of all fracking fluid chemicals, and the identification of potentially mobilized natural contaminants.

This post was written by Barclay Nicholson ( or 713.651.3662) from Norton Rose Fulbright's Energy Practice Group.