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First do no harm: What the science says about shale gas, health and other issues

By Barb Harris

It’s quite a surprise when a study commissioned by the federal government relating to resource development concludes that there are major information gaps, monitoring has been insufficient and it would be wise to slow down and do more research; however, that is exactly what the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) panel recommends in its report, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, released on May 1, 2014(1).

Here’s what the report says:

The review, carried out over two years by a panel of 14 international experts, concludes, “data about potential environmental impacts are neither sufficient nor conclusive.” Potential impacts of shale gas extraction include risks to water, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, risks to communities, and harm to human health.

There is reason to believe that shale gas development poses a risk to water resources, but the extent of that risk, and whether substantial damage has already occurred, cannot be assessed because of a lack of scientific data and understanding.

The report states that governments have not been effectively monitoring the impacts, and industry and government assurances that all is well are not sufficient.

“For large-scale shale gas development now, I don’t think you want to be in a position anymore of just saying, ‘trust me, we know what we’re doing.’ We’re past that,” U of Alberta engineering professor Rick Chalaturnyk, one of the report co-authors told CBC.

For those who have been working to stop shale gas development because of its potential to destroy what we care deeply about – clean air, clean water, clean food, and vibrant, sustainable, healthy communities, the report was a tremendous validation of our concerns. For years, politicians and industry spokespeople have been scoffing at our warnings, saying we just didn’t understand, and we were substituting emotion for fact. The report says the opposite – that the science points to many serious potential impacts.

“The lessons provided by the history of science and technology concerning all major energy sources and many other industrial initiatives show that substantial environmental impacts were typically not anticipated. What is perhaps more alarming is that where substantial adverse impacts were anticipated, these concerns were dismissed or ignored by those who embraced the expected positive benefits of the economic activities that produced those impacts.”

Of course, these concerns apply to more issues than shale gas, and it took less than a day for politicians to take the offensive. Both British Columbia Deputy Premier Rich Coleman and Federal Environment Minister Leona Aqlukkaq vehemently claimed that there had never been a case of well leakage in BC. Aqlukkaq went further, stating said the practice known as fracking is safe, and that provinces are regulating it effectively. New Brunswick Premier David Alward, fell back on the “just trust me” stance, claiming that his government was already doing what the panel recommends.

Human health impacts of shale gas and fracking

Human health has become a widely recognized, critical issue in assessing the impacts of shale (unconventional) gas development (UGD), including high volume hydraulic fracturing.

New peer reviewed articles have measured and evaluated air emissions in gas production areas, potential routes of exposure from water and air and potential health impacts associated with contaminants released through unconventional gas operations. These studies provide ever-increasing evidence of potential for a wide range of risks to public health, in particular for people living in UGD areas.

“For communities near development and production sites the major stressors are air pollutants, ground and surface water contamination, truck traffic and noise pollution, accidents and malfunctions, and psychosocial stress associated with community change,” write Adgate et al.(2)

“The primary routes of exposure to chemicals and other harmful substances used and generated by oil and gas facilities are inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption—of substances in air, drinking water, or surface water—which can lead to a range of symptoms,” notes Steinzor.(3)

Independent studies in areas where UGD development is taking place in proximity to homes, farms and workplaces have begun to document contaminants in air and water at levels known to have human health impacts.

For example, McKenzie(4) documents increased cancer and non-cancer risks among people living within ½ mile of an active well in Colorado. Steinzor(2) documents widespread symptoms reported in Pennsylvania communities, and measured levels of contaminants in both air and water. A community health survey in Dish, Texas found that 94% of residents reported health symptoms that did not exist before UG facilities located in their community. Independent air quality analysis in Dish by Wolf Eagle Environmental confirmed the presence of multiple known toxins, including multiple human carcinogens, at levels in excess of short and long term health-based Environmental Screening Levels (ESLs) and noted that no other source of these chemicals existed apart from the gas compressor stations.(5)

Researchers found that ground and surface water from locations near hydraulic fracturing drilling sites in Colorado scored higher in hormone-disruption tests than water from areas without drilling.(6) According to lead researcher Susan Nagel, this “could raise the risk of reproductive, metabolic, neurological and other diseases, especially in children who are exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.” MacKenzie found that women who live near natural gas wells in rural Colorado are more likely to have babies with neural tube and congenital heart defects.(7) Colorado is now investigating a recent spike in fetal abnormalities in Garfield County.(8)

Mental health issues, social stressors and indirect impacts from UG operations (stress, anxiety, noise, light, road accidents, increase in violent crime and STD’s) are increasingly recognized as additional aspects of health requiring consideration.(9)

There is recognition that pollutants linked to UGD can travel for many miles, creating both local and regional air quality impacts. High levels of ozone, which has severe impacts on respiratory health, have been measured in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Texas, including in rural areas with little industrial activity. A 2013 Colorado study(10) by NOAA scientists documented that half the ozone forming pollutants in the study area came from oil and natural gas drilling operations.

Focus on precaution

The Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia (EHANS) has been actively involved in the province-wide NOFRAC coalition, bringing an environmental health perspective. EHANS recently submitted a brief to the province’s independent Review of Hydraulic Fracturing. Many of the points in the EHANS brief are strikingly similar to the findings of the scientists who issued the Council of Canadian Academies report.(1)

EHANS stressed the need to:

  • Recognize impacts on vulnerable populations.
  • Consider short, medium and long-term impacts.
  • Assess health risks on the basis of aggregate and cumulative exposure assessments, and assessment of peak emission impacts as well as averages. Synergistic issues and lack of existing toxicology data for chemicals found in UGD areas also need to be considered.
  • Recognize that heavy industry located in residential and agricultural areas raises additional issues.
  • Assess regulatory capacity in practice, not only in theory.
  • Understand that “best practices” and “meeting standards” cannot be assumed to be health protective at this time.

EHANS’ brief also noted, “where data is weak, risk analysis is compromised. With significant information gaps, we do not yet know how to fully quantify the risks, and we do not yet know how to prevent them. We don’t have a basis to determine how much prevention will be ‘good enough.’”

In the US, where over a decade of intensive shale gas development has begun to reveal its impacts, health professionals are increasingly in the forefront of those who advocate slowing down and using caution in decisions relating to shale gas and fracking.

In the journal Public Health, Finkel and Hays state:

Until research is properly conducted, the unconventional development of natural gas from shale formations should not occur in places where it is currently prohibited, e.g., New York and Maryland. In places now under development it should be constrained with strong regulations in direct proportion to inspection capability and closely monitored for its impact on the health of populations. Natural gas has been in shale formations for millions of years; it isn’t going anywhere and will be around for future generations.(11)

Phillips, masters of Laws candidate and Goldberg, Professor of Epidemiology and Bio-statistics at McGill argue:

… Natural gas development requires comprehensive safeguards to protect valuable resources and prevent against irreparable damage. Yet, such safeguards are impossible to implement if there exists a significant lack of information and scientific data regarding the effects of development upon human life and the natural environment. In particular, there are sizeable informational shortcomings surrounding the use of hydraulic fracturing within extraction activities.(12)

Industry and government claim that there is stringent regulation of fracking and shale gas development, but in fact there are virtually no federal protections relating to fracking in Canada. Many oil and gas operations are small enough to be exempt from reporting air emissions to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). There are no federal regulations restricting substances that can be injected underground, such as chemical mixtures in fracking fluids, which frequently contain known carcinogens.(13)

Protecting what we love

Shale gas and fracking are poised to affect almost every province in Canada. The issue has mobilized grassroots protest in Eastern Canada like few other issues in the region’s history.

In New Brunswick, groups have sprung up in over 30 communities – Acadian, Anglophone and First Nations – working together to protect the water, air and land. Petitions, rallies and a summer of protests led by Elsipogtoq First Nations have involved thousands of people. Nova Scotia has seen widespread protest and lobbying, which led to an independent review that is due to report in July 2014. In both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, shale gas opponents are calling for a 10- year moratorium on exploration and development of shale gas. Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland presently have moratoriums in place.

In British Columbia, a coalition of environmental groups is suing the BC Oil and Gas Commission and EnCana, the province’s major shale gas company for violating the province’s Water Act, allowing repeated short-term water permits for millions of litres of fresh water, drained from lakes, streams and rivers to be used in fracking operations.

As shale gas exploitation spreads closer to residential areas in oil-friendly Alberta, the City of Lethbridge has called for a ban on urban drilling, Mountain View County residents are speaking out against the lack of regulation and protection from nearby shale gas drilling. The National Farmer’s Union has called for a moratorium on fracking, arguing that the Precautionary Principle must guide decision-making.

Across the US, health professionals have taken an active role in relation to shale gas: conducting research, educating the public and calling for public policy to prevent harm. In February, 2014, over 1500 US health professionals called on President Obama to “halt fracking wherever it’s already happening and ban new fracking,” asserting that “left unchecked, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing could soon emerge as one of the greatest environmental health threats we have faced in a generation.(14)

To date in Canada, most health professionals and their organizations, and most health advocates, have been silent on the issue of shale gas and fracking. There are exceptions: notably New Brunswick physicians and public health officials,(15) and a few brave physicians in Alberta and British Columbia willing to speak out in an oil-dominated culture. Canadian peer-reviewed literature relating to health impacts is scarce.

Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada(1) was written and released independently. It illustrates the importance of independent science, so crucial these days when the Federal government is firing scientists, dissolving scientific bodies, defunding researchers without industrial partners, and muzzling the federal scientists who remain.

It’s too soon to know whether the solid analysis and conclusions of the CCA report will drive future policy decisions about shale gas or gather dust. In an era of decreasing environmental protection, industry self-monitoring and self-regulation, the report’s recommendations go against the tide of federal and provincial governments’ preferred ways of doing business.

Shale gas is likely to be coming soon to a neighborhood, farmer’s field, municipal council, legislature or parliament near all of us. It is worthy of our attention and our action.

Barb Harris lives in River John, Nova Scotia, an area leased for shale gas development three years ago. She has been researching the health impacts of shale gas development, and sharing what she learned, through articles in An Ounce, public talks, and the on-line Fracking and Health Awareness Project. She recently submitted a brief to Nova Scotia’s review of hydraulic fracturing on behalf of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia. Barb is also author of Out of Control: Nova Scotia’s Experience with Fracking for Shale Gas..

For more information:

Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, Council of Canadian Academies, May 2014
Fracking and Health Awareness Project, Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia
EHANS submission to NS Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, April 2014
Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy library of peer review literature & science summaries
Health Impacts in brief: Barb Harris at Speak-out Against Fracking: Tatamagouche, NS, 7 minutes


  1. Council of Canadian Academies. “Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada.” Accessed June 21, 2014.
  2. Adgate JL, Goldstein BD, and McKenzie LM. Potential Public Health Hazards, Exposures and Health Effects from Unconventional Natural Gas Development. (2014) Environ. Sci. Technol.
  3. Steinzor, N., Subra, W., & Sumi, L. (2013). Investigating links between shale gas development and health impacts through a community survey project in Pennsylvania. New Solutions, 23(1), 55-83.
  4. McKenzie, L. M., Witter, R. Z., Newman, L. S., & Adgate, J. L. (2012). Human health risk assessment of air emissions from development of unconventional natural gas resources. Science of the Total Environment, 424, 79-87. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2012.02.018
  5. Town of DISH, Texas Ambient Air Monitoring Analysis Final Report, Wolf Eagle Environmental, September 15, 2009, retrieved from
  6. Kassotis, C. D., Tillitt, D. E., Wade Davis, J., Hormann, A. M., & Nagel, S. C. (2014). Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region. Endocrinology155(3). doi:
  7. McKenzie L. M., Guo, R., Witter, R. Z., Savitz, D. A., Newman, L. S., & Adgate, J. L. (2014). Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado. Environmental Health Perspectives 122(4), 412–417. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1306722
  8. Landman, A. (2014, April 1). Colorado investigates a spike in fetal abnormalities near natural gas drilling site. Retrieved from:
  9. Adgate 2014, Cleary, E. (2012, September). Cleary, E., Chief Medical Officer of Health’s Recommendations Concerning Shale Gas Development in New Brunswick. Retrieved from: , Covey, S. (2011). Local Experiences Related to the Marcellus Shale Industry. Retrieved from:
  10. Gilman, J.B., Lerner, B.M., Kuster, W.C., deGouw, J.A., Source Signature of Volatile Organic Compounds from Oil and Natural Gas Operations in Northeastern Colorado, January 14, 2013, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (3), pp 1297–1305, DOI: 10.1021/es304119a
  11. Finkel, M. L. & Hays, J. (2013). The implications of unconventional drilling for natural gas: a global public health concern. Public Health, 127, 889-893. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2013.07.005
  12. Phillips, SK, and MS Goldberg. “Natural Gas Development: Extracting Externalities – Towards Precaution-Based Decision-Making.” McGill JSDLP 8, no. 2 (2013): 151–204. Available at: and Goldberg – Fracking- JSDLP_2013_Volume_8_Issue_2_151_204.pdf
  13. Colborn, T., et al (2011) Natural gas operations from a public health perspective. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. 17:1039-1056
  15. See report of NB Chief Medical Officer of Health, statements from NB College of Family Physicians, medical staff of three NB hospitals, NB Lung Association,

Also in the JUNE 2014 Issue of An Ounce

Published: June 25th, 2014


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