Concerns about the health effects of ‘fracking’ — formally called hydraulic fracturing — are high, and Maryland has just become the third U.S. state to ban the practice.
Yet here in B.C., LNG produced by liquefying fracked gas continues to be a priority for Liberal Leader Christy Clark, even though we know very little about the immediate and long-term health effects of such projects. And, because so little is known about the effects, a moratorium on fracking should be an election issue in B.C.
Recently, over 180 physicians and other health professionals signed a letter asking that no new projects that increase the level of hydraulic fracturing, including Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas (PNW LNG), go ahead in B.C. or the rest of Canada until the health risks are understood, communicated to communities, and mitigated.
In late 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final version of its long-awaited report on the effects of fracking on drinking water in the States. The report concludes that “spills of hydraulic-fracturing fluids or additives have reached, and therefore impacted, surface-water resources,” including drinking water. Large gaps in the data prevented the EPA from being able to quantify the extent of fracking’s impact on U.S. drinking water.
The EPA report comes as the research community tries to catch-up with the fracking boom. Essentially, two years ago we knew almost nothing — now we know a little more than that.
Preliminary studies on the human health effects of fracking have identified concerns with the hormone-disrupting properties of fracking fluids, their potential for reproductive and developmental toxicity, increased asthma rates and congenital heart disease, with greater proximity to natural-gas development.
Communities directly affected by fracking may benefit from an injection of jobs during a boom, but also identify concerns related to water sources, traffic, noise and inadequate health services for the changes in population. Additionally, a recent Amnesty International report raised alarms about the addition of young, male workers resulting in the increasing potential for violence against indigenous women and girls in northeastern B.C.
What standards of proof are required before we, as a society, say, “Hold up! Let’s make sure we don’t have a problem here?” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “in the case of serious or irreversible threats to the health of humans or the ecosystem, acknowledged scientific uncertainty shouldn’t be used as a reason to postpone preventive measures.” This is the precautionary principle, a foundational concept in public health.
The WHO considers climate change to be the greatest global health threat of the 21st century, because of rising sea levels, extreme weather, crop failures, malnutrition, and potential migration and conflict. Yet the emissions associated with the PNW LNG project alone, which will be supplied largely with fracked gas, will make it essentially impossible for B.C. to meet its 2050 greenhouse-gas emissions targets.
Clearly we need to develop a sensible plan for rapidly transitioning away from fossil-fuel dependency to a world of cleaner energy sources, including a just transition for communities that depend economically on the fossil-fuel industry.
Our federal and provincial governments have failed to apply the precautionary principle in their approach to oil and gas — and have therefore failed to protect the health of the public. Both the New Brunswick College of Family Physicians and the College of Family Physicians in Newfoundland-Labrador have urged fracking moratoria in those provinces. The same must happen in B.C., and those campaigning to form our next government must commit to act in the public interest by implementing a moratorium on fracking until we have a much better handle on its immediate and long-term health impacts.
Dr. Courtney Howard is vice-president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and practises emergency medicine in Yellowknife.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is professor and senior scholar at the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria.
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