Human health relies on clean water, safe food and unpolluted air, and fracking poses a risk to all three. The scale and type of chemicals used in and mobilised by the fracking process make the risk of contaminating surface and ground water unacceptably high. In the words of the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) the risk is almost certain.
Researchers say the scientific study of the health effects of fracking is still in its infancy. In 2014 the Concerned Health Practitioners Of New York reported that research published in British medical journal, The Lancet, warned:
this form of extraction might increase health risks compared with conventional oil and gas wells because of the larger surface footprints of fracking sites [due to the large number of well pads being developed]; their close proximity to locations where people live, work, and play; and the need to transport and store large volumes of materials.
In the Tara gasfields in Queensland, Doctors for the Environment say the rush to develop unconventional gas has failed to address significant public health concerns associated with fracking, including:
- The lack of adequate research on chemicals used in fracking and the associated waste produced, and insufficient data on cumulative health impacts
- The lack of effective regulations that protect public health
- The lack of comprehensive environmental monitoring and health impact assessments
- The health concerns over the disposal of hazardous CSG waste, particularly 'beneficial reuse'
The NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer (CSE) recommended a ban on fracking in the Sydney water catchment area until the true measure of the risks to public health could be determined.
New York State's ban on fracking was based on an extremely detailed assessment of the health risks. The decision to ban fracking in New York followed an exhaustive five year study of that focused exclusively on the risks to human health. The conclusion: fracking poses inestimable public-health risks. The state of Maryland has since followed suit.
The UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has warned that, when we have the benefit of hindsight, fracking may come to be seen to be as damaging as thalidomide, tobacco and asbestos. When considering our all-out, never mind the consequences dash for gas, Sir Mark Walport observes that:
History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic – for instance… asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general.
In all these and many other cases, delayed recognition of adverse effects incurred not only serious environmental or health impacts, but massive expense and reductions in competitiveness for firms and economies persisting in the wrong path.