Analysis of US fracking sites suggests pollutants including airborne particulates and heavy metals could affect neurodevelopment of babies and children.

By Nicola Davis

Pollutants released during fracking processes could pose a health risk to infants and children, according to researchers studying chemicals involved in shale gas operations.

The extraction of shale gas using pressurised fluid – a process known as fracking – has been used commercially since the 1950s and in recent years has fuelled an energy boom in the US. Many countries around the world are looking to follow suit – including Australia and the UK, where the first drilling in six years is expected to begin this week in the North Yorkshire village of Kirby Misperton, despite staunch opposition from protesters.

However, other countries have banned the practice, including France, Ireland, and Germany, citing environmental concerns, with the Scottish parliament today backing the Scottish government’s ban.

Now scientists analysing studies looking into the presence of chemicals at fracking sites in the US say the presence of pollutants ranging from airborne particulates to heavy metals could affect the neurodevelopment of babies and children in the area.

The team focused on five major groups of pollutants including heavy metals, chemicals that disrupt hormone systems and particulates. These substances have been linked to effects ranging from memory, learning and IQ deficits to disorders including anxiety and schizophrenia, as well as behavioural problems including hyperactivity and aggression.

“This study is really the first comprehensive look at whether there is a risk for this type of harm from fracking,” said Ellen Webb, co-author of the research from the Center for Environmental Health, a US-based non-profit organisation.

The research, published in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health, details evidence of the neurological and neurodevelopmental effects and long-term health impacts of chemicals that other studies have linked to unconventional oil and gas operations – techniques that include fracking.

The research highlights a number of ways by which such pollutants are released by fracking and other such operations, including through leaks, equipment use and trucks for transportation.

It also reports that levels of various pollutants in air and water samples – including particulate matter, manganese and benzene – have been found by some studies to exceed US guidelines at certain fracking sites.

“Given the profound sensitivity of the developing brain and the central nervous system, it is very reasonable to conclude that young children who experience frequent exposure to these pollutants are at particularly high risk for chronic neurological problems and disease,” said Webb.

But, she noted, questions remain around what the exact health impacts of such levels of exposure might be..

“One of the major unknowns is how low level but long term exposure from multiple chemicals might affect people’s health,” said Webb.

The authors make a number of recommendations, including that buildings such as schools be set at least 1.6km (one mile) away from where drilling occurs. They also say better monitoring is needed to unpick the health impacts of human exposure to the pollutants.

“Currently, only a small number of studies document a causal relationship between pollution created by unconventional oil and gas operations and undesirable health outcomes,” the authors note.

Laura Grant, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management in the UK reiterated the point, noting that while the research detailed health impacts linked to the various pollutants, there was no clear evidence that fracking has directly caused such problems among those near shale gas sites. But, she added, “that is not to say there aren’t any risks,” although she observed that regulations around fracking differ between the US and the UK.

“The limits on what you can put into your fracking fluid are a lot more stringent in the UK,” said Grant. “At the moment it is only very few substances, and they are all non-hazardous.”

Professor Andrew Watterson, director of the centre for public health and population health research at the University of Stirling, said some of the pollutants flagged by the researchers will also be present at sites in the UK and may include particulate matter and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. He added that more needs to be done to determine what constitutes a “safe” level.

“Preventing exposure is the critical step and even with a small number of pilot wells under relatively tight surveillance by regulators, there have already been multiple breaches and planning creep issues,” said Watterson.

But Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG, the representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry, said research had shown that levels of risk were low in a properly-regulated industry.

“Approval by the Environment Agency for the use of chemicals in the UK will only occur if consideration of the likely concentrations and pathways from a source to a given receptor is minimal,” he noted.

However Antoine Simon, extractive industries campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said the latest study adds to a growing body of research highlighting health dangers for those living near fracking sites, and called for a ban on the technology.

“Fracking technology is inherently risky wherever its used and it would be foolish to think the health impacts seen in the US would be avoided in the UK,” he said. “The risks to people exposed to air and water pollutants associated with fracking have to be taken seriously.”