Health advisor urges early assessment of shale gas risks in planning process

An assessment of the risks of shale gas development must take place early in the planning and environmental permitting process, according to the government's health advisor.

Public Health England (PHE) has published a report assessing the health risks from any emissions of chemicals and radioactive material from the extraction of shale gas.

Since shale gas exploration is at a very early stage in the UK, PHE based its study on countries where commercial scale shale gas extraction operations have already taken place, such as the US.

It concluded that the potential public health risk from shale gas operations was very low if these are properly run and regulated. Where there have been problems, these have been caused by operational failures and inadequacies in regulation, the report states.

PHE recommends that health impact assessments (HIA) could be used in the planning process to assess the impact on public health of shale gas extraction if commercial-scale operations are planned.

HIAs are voluntary in the UK. They have typically been used to assess the impact of large-scale developments such as waste management facilities or strategic policies and plans, the report says.

The PHE says that the need for an HIA should be considered early in the planning process as it offers a useful tool to assess the health consequences of shale gas developments. However, such assessments are time and resource intensive and may have limited value around a single drill site, the report notes.

Lack of data may make an HIA difficult, the PHE says. Accurate data on likely exposures and impacts are limited or not yet available, its study found.

Professor John Newton, chief knowledge officer at PHE, said: "In due course it will also be important to assess the broader public health impacts such as increased traffic, the impact of new infrastructure on the community and the effect of workers moving to fracking areas."

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