Warnings on the health effects of fracking
The meeting was chaired by Julian O’Halloran, writer and for many years a BBC broadcaster. Speakers included Dr Jill Sutcliffe, from Wisborough Green, an expert on the health effects of nuclear waste, and a member of the Medact advisory board on fracking.
She explained the report published by Medact in 2015, and its conclusion that a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas exploration should be imposed to allow time for a full and comprehensive health and environmental impact assessment to be completed, because of the significant risk to public health.
Dr Tim Thornton, a retired GP, came down from Ryedale in North Yorkshire. He spoke of the weight of peer-reviewed science gradually accumulating about the health dangers of unconventional oil and gas exploration. Areas where fracking is taking place in the USA can experience a 27% increase in hospital admissions, he said. Would Sussex hospitals cope with this increase in admissions if fracking came to this area, he asked?
He spoke of ‘sacrifice zones’ around well sites, where air pollution would be a serious issue as well as potential water pollution, and he addressed the difficulty if not impossibility of adequately treating the highly toxic fluids that flow back from a fracked well.
Children, he said, were particularly at risk, along with the unborn. Over 80% of the scientific papers published on fracking have come out in the last two years, he said, and over 80% of those identified health harms. Problems in children included rashes, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, wheezing and neurological problems, and in adults increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Workers have also been shown to be at risk. Silicosis, a progressive and incurable scarring of the lungs, is one of the hazards because of breathing in the particular rare kind of sand used to ‘prop open’ the new underground fractures. ‘Don’t put your son on a frack pad, Mrs Worthington!’ he advised.
Another speaker was Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, a UK-registered charity that works at European, UK and international levels to prevent man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans. He explained how the compounds and chemicals created and emitted while drilling for unconventional oil and gas and in flow-testing and subsequent exploitation include some that are highly toxic.
His particular emphasis was on ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ – chemicals that interfere with our hormones. This could affect our brains and reproductive systems – our fertility, he said. There was a greater risk for people living close to a frack site than around a conventional oil or gas well because of the additional chemicals used in fracking; the larger numbers of wells required to get up close the oil or gas-containing rocks; the many lorry movements needed; the large volumes of liquids; and the highly contaminated flowback, which leaches out substances from the depths – including extremely toxic hydrocarbons and radioactivity.
Charles Metcalfe of Balcombe spoke about the way the law and regulations surrounding fracking in the UK have recently been changed in order to push fracking through more easily. The government, he said, has changed the definition of fracking, making it dependent only on the quantity of water used. Under the current definition, the Lancashire frack that caused earthquakes in 2011 would no longer be legally called a frack, nor would 89% of all fracks in the USA. This would allow drilling companies to disregard the fracking rules, he said.
He underlined that this meeting was not just about Balcombe. Thousands of wells could be drilled across the Weald, many thousands across the UK.
This was backed up by a short film showing Stephen Sanderson, Executive Chairman and CEO of UKOG (the company drilling for oil at Horse Hill near Gatwick). He explained how the industry wanted to target ‘unconventional’ oil (that means fracked or accessed using acids) across the Weald. ‘You have to drill a lot of wells close to each other (…) almost back to back so that it becomes like an industrial process,’ he admitted
The panel talks concluded with a speech by John Ashton, a career diplomat who served as UK Special Representative for Climate Change from 2006-2012 under three successive UK Foreign Secretaries. He was not able to be there in person because of his mother’s illness. His speech was read by Balcombe resident Helen Savage.
In Ashton’s view, ‘We are entitled to a government that is on our side, in return for the taxes we pay. In the matter of unconventional oil and gas, we do not have a government that is on our side.
‘We have a government that is the enemy of the people.
‘It will be you, not they,’ he continued, ‘who will have to live with the consequences of this intrusive project: the industrialisation of your countryside; the risks to your physical and mental health and to your environment; the dislocation of your communities and your social fabric.’