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       Hazards special online report, July 2014
Chemicals, dust and deaths and the new rush for oil and gas
With massive reservoirs of oil and gas trapped in the rocks under our feet, the oil industry is eager to get fracking. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill warns US evidence of chemical related deaths, a soaring fatality rate and widespread over-exposure to lung wrecking, cancer-causing dust, has raised seriously unhealthy questions.

The UK government is as keen as the oil giants to kick off a new UK carbon fuels bonanza, and in June 2014 announced it would legislate so fracking could take place under our homes without our permission. 

The ground had been prepared. The House of Lords economic affairs committee (1) had in May 2014 said fracking should be an “urgent priority” for the UK because of the “substantial benefits.” Public Health England (2) had in October 2013 concluded the public health risks were low if the industry “was properly run and regulated.”

There would be jobs, profits, cheap power and energy security with little risk to public health, the government concluded. The nation should start pumping colossal quantities of water, silica and chemicals into the ground to create fissures in the rocks – hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ – to tap an economic and power windfall. 

But not everyone was convinced. The TUC (3)  points to studies showing jobs projections from the same US industry informing the UK reports had been grossly inflated, perhaps by a factor of 10.(4)  It also highlights a February 2014 economic analysis of US shale gas and implications for the EU(5)  suggesting the macro-economic and competitiveness impacts appear relatively small in the long term.

Nor are the workers best placed to pick up any jobs convinced about the benefits of fracking. Unite, the union that organises the construction, rig and transport workers on which fracking would rely, agreed at its July 2014 national conference to lobby for a moratorium on fracking. Delegates want union members to be made aware of the dangers of fracking and be advised not to work on fracking sites.

It was a development welcomed by environmental groups. Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said: "This is great Unite clearly recognises the risks posed by fracking. Shale gas extraction is not the answer to our energy needs.”

Fracking critics say the UK government, the Lords and Public Health England have over-hyped potential benefits while downplaying US evidence of risks to the health of local communities, with many public health questions at best unanswered.(6) 

A February 2014 review of health-related studies published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology concluded that the current scientific literature puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address.”(7)

And for workers in the hydraulic fracturing industry that would smash the fuel out of ground, there is already evidence those fracking risks can be deadly.

They’re only workers

While largely dismissing health concerns and urging Britain to frack away, the Lords committee did concede “there are very limited data regarding occupational health hazards from exposure to the chemicals, proppants and processes used in high volume hydro-fracking.”

Environmental campaigners sealed off the main entrance to the prime minister’s period cottage in the picturesque Cotswolds hamlet of Dean on 4 June 2014, the day the government announced it would relax fracking controls. Greenpeace managed to erect security fencing along David Cameron’s garden wall and a sign reading: “We apologise for any inconvenience caused while we frack under your home.”

The workplace regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), however, seems worryingly oblivious to many of these risks. On HSE’s HSE’s threadbare shale gas webpages(8) it says the main hazard is well failure that could lead to a fire or explosion. It does not mention health risks at all.

In a section headed ‘What are the health and safety risks?’, HSE notes: “The main hazard is uncontrolled release of hydrocarbon gas due to a failure of the well structure which may then reach a source of ignition leading to a fire or explosion. A well designed and constructed well will reduce the risks of a release of fluids to as low as is reasonably practicable. The actual level of risk varies, depending on how quickly and easily any release can be controlled, and on geological conditions. Where there is a loss of well integrity, there is also the possibility of fracking fluids or produced water being released to the surrounding rock strata or at surface, which may have environmental consequences depending on the location of water aquifers.” 

As far as HSE’s concerned, that’s it.

Occupational risks related to fracking overlooked by the UK regulator include exposures to a range of toxic and carcinogenic substances, as well as more typical hazards found in the extractive industries. But while the data may be limited, the evidence of workplace problems already available is seriously worrying. 

Fracking and safety

Death on the Job,(9) a May 2014 report from the US national safety federation AFL-CIO, included a stark warning about the occupational risks of America’s fracking-fuelled oil and gas boom. 

The union body noted deaths in the oil and natural gas industry were up by 23 per cent in 2012 alone. It traces the upward trend back to 2008 and the creation of fracking boom towns. In February 2014, a worker died when a Chevron fracking well in a small Pennsylvania town exploded. The fire burned for five days.

In addition to the blow-out risks admitted by HSE, the US Laborers’ Union safety research arm, LHSFNA, points to fall risks from trucks, derricks, rigs, ladders and mobile equipment.(10) It says workers are also at risk from ‘struck-by’ hazards – being hit by the miles of chains, hoses, pipes, cables and other equipment crammed onto fracking sites. On top of that there’s the usual extractive industry hazards posed by heavy, fast-moving machinery.

Transport-related accidents are also a major concern. Fracking requires constant deliveries of millions of gallons of water and hundreds of tons of equipment.
In built up areas this can increase road traffic and related risks on crowded sites.

Health and fracking

Silica  Silica sand is the main ‘proppant’ used to fracture rocks underground and keep those cracks open. This ‘frac sand’ if not properly controlled can cause lung cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases in exposed workers. The US has the same occupational exposure limit for silica as the UK. It is a level a study by the US government’s safety research agency NIOSH(11)  found could be exceeded by a factor of 10 in fracking operations, prompting an official Hazard Alert.(12)  Face masks did not reduce exposures below the limit, NIOSH found. 

An ongoing attempt by the workplace safety regular, OSHA, to halve this permissible limit for crystalline silica exposure has been opposed by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the rest of the fracking industry. OSHA calculated that additional protections – including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers – would be required for 88 per cent of fracking workers in order to comply with a tighter standard. API has refused to release the findings of its own evaluation of silica exposures. 

Even at the current exposure standard – the UK and the US have the same occupational exposure limit for silica, at least for now - exposure can cause potentially fatal cancers and lung and kidney diseases, and may lead to arthritis and other chronic health problems. In general, the more you are exposed, the greater the risk.

Volatile hydrocarbons In May 2014, NIOSH(13) reported that workers were facing hazardous levels of volatile hydrocarbons from used fracking fluids. It said since 2010 there have been at least four deaths linked to acute chemical exposures during flowback operations, the transferring, storing and measuring of fluids that return to the surface after fracking. The research body said as a consequence it had launched an investigation. These volatile chemicals can affect the eyes, lungs and nervous system and at high levels also may lead to an abnormal heartbeat, NIOSH said. 

Hormone disrupters A report presented to the Endocrine Society conference in June 2014 warned that the hormone disrupting properties of many fracking chemicals was worse than initially thought. “Among the chemicals that the fracking industry has reported using most often, all 24 that we have tested block activity of one or more important hormone receptors,” said co-author Christopher Kassotis of the University of Missouri. “The high levels of hormone disruption by endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that we measured, have been associated with many poor health and safety outcomes, such as infertility, cancer and birth defects.”(14)

Other exposures  An estimated 600 chemicals are used in fracking operations. Oil giant Halliburton lists 27 chemicals plus water used in a “typical European frac formulation”. These include chemicals more traditionally seen in pesticides, stain removers, degreasers, paint thinners, inks and disinfectants. Exposures at fracking sites can include heavy metals, benzene and other carcinogens and nerve poisons. The use of heavy equipment and haulage vehicles can also create a risk from diesel exhaust fumes, a cause of lung diseases and associated with lung, bladder and other cancers.

The industry has been criticised for claiming the precise formulations used are ‘trade secrets.’

The TUC, in its submission to the House of Lords fracking inquiry, called for “transparency and disclosure of the full range of chemicals used in fracking,” adding “variations in operations between companies pose significant challenges for occupational health which have yet to be comprehensively addressed.” 

Regulation problem

Energy minister Michael Fallon, commenting on the pro-fracking House of Lords report, said. “We welcome the committee’s conclusion that risks to health and the environment are low if shale development is properly regulated.”

Responding to the same Lords report, the TUC said: “The way forward involves good management of risks supported by tight regulation and full transparency.

“The TUC would want to ensure tight regulations across a range of health and safety at work issues, developed in consultation with trade unions. The onset of potentially high volume shale gas fracking across many parts of the country represents a new industrial, environmental, and land use development pattern with significant potential for impacts on public and employee health.”(15)

Michael Hill, writing in the Lancet(16) in June 2014, warned that regulatory and enforcement framework just does not exist in the UK “The need for strict regulations coupled with strict enforcement through an independent, competent body is clear. But no such body is exists, and no such efficient regulations are forthcoming,” he wrote, adding that the relevant functions of the existing regulators, the Environment Agency and HSE, had been either scrapped, restructured or downsized. The government, he claimed, “choose to legislate to make fracking easier for the operators, but fail to make it safer for the public.”

Fracking is an industry dominated by the companies that gave us Deepwater Horizon, Buncefield and Texas City, overseen by a regulator apparently unaware of the potential risks. 

HSE is also a regulator shorn of resources and under instruction to consider the economic implications before it acts. The government has declared fracking an economic imperative. HSE has neither the inclination nor the clout to stand up to the government and the oil leviathans. 

If the workplace and public health risks posed by fracking are to be avoided, it seems it will be left to policing by unions, environmental groups and the communities who have the frackers banging on, and under, their doors.


1. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee inquiry into the Economic Impact of Shale Gas and Oil on UK Energy Policy. 3rd Report, 8 May 2014. The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil, House of Lords economic affairs committee hearing webpages.

2. PHE-CRCE-002 - Review of the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of the shale gas extraction, Public Health England, October 2013. PHE news release.

3. Phil Pearson. Is “going all out for shale” the solution?, TUC Touchstone blog, 8 May 2014.

4. Exaggerating the employment impacts of shale drilling: How and why, Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, November 2013.

5. Unconventional wisdom: an economic analysis of US shale gas and implications for the EU, IDDRI, February 2014.

6. BMJ news release. Editorial: Public Health England’s draft report on shale gas extraction, British Medical Journal, 2014;348:g2728.

7. John L Adgate, Bernard D Goldstein, and Lisa M McKenzie. Potential public health hazards, exposures and health effects from unconventional natural gas development, Environmental Science & Technology, published online 24 February 2014. DOI: 10.1021/es404621d

8. HSE shale gas webpages.

9. Death on the job, the toll of neglect, AFL-CIO, May 2014.

10. Occupational safety and health risks of fracking operations, Lifelines, LHSFNA, October 2013.

11. Esswein EJ, Breitenstein M, Snawder J, Kiefer M, Sieber WK. Occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH), volume 10, number 7, pages 347-56, 2013 [abstract].

12. OHSA/NIOSH Hazard Alert: Exposure to silica during hydraulic fracturing.

13. Reports of worker fatalities during flowback operations, NIOSH Science blog, 19 May 2014.

14. Hormone-disrupting activity of fracking chemicals worse than initially found, Endocrine Society, 23 June 2014.

15. TUC news release and TUC response to House of Lords shale gas/fracking inquiry

16. Michael Hill. Shale gas regulation in the UK and health implications of fracking, The Lancet, Volume 383, Issue 9936, Pages 2211 - 2212, 28 June 2014

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With massive reservoirs of oil and gas trapped in the rocks under our feet, the oil industry is eager to get fracking. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill warns US evidence of chemical related deaths, a soaring fatality rate and widespread over-exposure to lung wrecking, cancer-causing dust, has raised seriously unhealthy questions.

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