Air emissions, Environmental controls, Permitting, Pollution prevention & control, Public safety, Worker safety

“Dear Aunty, can we expect dangerously high levels of carcinogenic air emissions at UK fracking sites?”

“Dear Aunty, can we expect dangerously high levels of carcinogenic air emissions at UK fracking sites?”

No sweeties, I don’t think we can.

A recent report from the US, widely cited by UK media outlets like the Independent and constantly circulated by shale gas opponents, suggests that dangerously high levels of benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulphide were found near US fracking sites.

According to the study author:

“We explored air quality at a previously neglected scale: near a range of unconventional oil and gas development and production sites that are the focus of community concern. The study relied on 35 air samples taken from 11 sites at homes and farms near fracking sites in the five states. Sixteen of the samples found unsafe levels of two carcinogenic chemicals — benzene and formaldehyde, as well as hydrogen sulphide.”

So, the first thing to note, dears, is the very small sample size: there are hundreds of thousands of wells in the US where gas and oil are being extracted. Taking just 35 air samples from only 11 locations means the results are immediately questionable. It certainly wouldn’t be safe to draw any conclusions from this study that could then be applied more widely.

Then, of those samples, fewer than half had unsafe levels of benzene and formaldehyde.

Most troubling of all, however, is the way these samples were collected:

The samples were collected by trained, local grass-roots citizens groups during times of heavy industrial activity or when experiencing headaches, nausea or dizziness

This introduces all sorts of risks concerning the validity of the results, cherubs. For a start, no matter how good the training they received, there’s a chance that not all the grab samples would have been taken properly, especially if they were taken when the volunteers were already feeling unwell – the risk of human error. There’s also the possibility that the samples could have been taken in a manner that would deliberately exaggerate the results.

The study would be much more indicative had it been performed at much larger scale and using continuous, passive monitoring where it’s harder to fake the results.

And then there’s this to consider too, poppets:

Six of the samples were taken near compressor stations and all contained formaldehyde levels with increased lifetime cancer risks, according to the study.

So, not at actual fracking sites themselves, but elsewhere in the infrastructure used to get shale gas from where it’s produced to where it’s used. And probably natural gas from conventional reservoirs too.

How can we be so certain we won’t see this repeated in the UK?

Well, for several reasons.

Take benzene, for instance. In the US, my loves, diesel – which contains benzene – has been used in hydraulic fracturing. The Groundwater Directive in Europe, and therefore the UK, won’t permit this. And although benzene is often encountered in hydrocarbon reservoirs, the levels found in the UK have been in the very low, single digit parts per billion range.

Formaldehyde, similarly, isn’t something we’ll see used in the UK. It has properties that mean it’s an effective bactericide but the only such product currently authorised for use (in very minor quantities, and not needed so far) is Glutaraldehyde. And even this is unlikely to be used in future because operators will likely use pre-treated mains water in hydraulic fracturing – which doesn’t need Glutaraldehyde adding – and, during any reuse of fracturing fluid, it’s probable that non-chemical alternatives like UV disinfection will be relied upon poppets.

We also have air emissions legislation that operators would have to comply with.

But there’s another reason, dears, and it has nothing to do with laws used to protect the environment. It’s called COSHH.

You see, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health is well established legislation designed to protect the people most likely to be exposed to hazardous substances in industry – the workers.

Working together closely, HSE and the offshore oil and gas industry have developed all sorts of best practice to prevent workforce exposure to dangerous chemicals, which you can read about here http://www.hse.gov.uk/coshh/industry/offshore.htm

If there are dangerous substances emitted at fracking sites, it’s the rig crews that will be most exposed, not the public sweeties. But because COSHH limits close proximity worker exposures so much, public health impacts are an even more remote possibility.

It’s COSHH that means the thousands of engineers living and working on the UK’s offshore platforms for months at a time aren’t all the victims of poor health and cancer. If they can live in those conditions, dears – literally sleeping above the well heads without it being injurious to their health – then there’s no reason to believe that won’t be possible onshore too, where COSHH also applies.

And those compressor stations? We already have these onshore in the UK as part of the existing gas transmission network – and we don’t appear to have appreciable, problematic emissions causing us any harm, do we?

So, no my dears, I do not think we’ll see dangerously high levels of carcinogenic air emissions at UK fracking sites.

Of course, that doesn’t fit the narrative of shale opponents, which is characterised by hysterical claims of terrible health impacts. But you can’t argue with the facts and the facts are that the UK’s regulatory approach means we’re very well protected indeed.

Strangely, many of the people making these wildly exaggerated claims are smokers: deliberately choosing to expose themselves and those around them to harmful chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and toluene (BTEX), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Radium-226.

Until next time xxx

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