Digest Index



Radon and Fracking – Lancashire Left At Risk

12th January 2017

Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that is released from the ground and is present everywhere. Outdoor radon levels in the UK are generally low, indoor radon levels vary across the UK because of accumulation and can be more significant in their potential effects on health.

Radon has been shown to induce cancers, in the UK it is estimated that residential radon is responsible for about 2,000 lung cancer deaths per year (the second major cause after smoking).

In the US the Environmental Protection Agency has produced action levels, figures triggering the need to take action to reduce radon, (148 bequerel per cu m). So has the World Health Organisation (lower at 100 Bq/cu m). In the UK Public Health England has a similar action level, but at 200 Bq/cu m twice the WHO figure and more than the US EPA. Once again the UK does NOT have the best standards in the world. But more significant is this - despite this variance, what is commonly agreed is that there is NO SAFE LIMIT that can be determined.

From the US experience it is now beyond doubt that fracking can result in increased presence of radon. Earlier studies showing high radon levels in fracking areas were augmented in 2015 by a report (Casey et al) which showed a time correlation between the onset of fracking and increase of domestic radon.

The PHE in its 2014 report on the potential public health impact of shale gas in the UK recognised that radon may be released to the environment from shale gas activities. Although the report suggested it was unlikely that levels presented a serious risk, it made a clear recommendation. Baseline radon levels in areas of interest for shale gas activities should be established.

The government has promoted the PHE report as saying fracking is safe with good regulation. Yet it has refused to carry out the report’s recommendations for such improved regulation, just as it did with the recommendations of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.

In the case of radon monitoring, the government (now specifcally the BEIS department) is relying on the British Geological Survey and PHE to carry out radon monitoring and – a separate issue – limited air monitoring for pollutants.

On the air monitoring it is understood that the BGS has installed one (only) monitoring site but they refuse officially to divulge its location, which makes it difficult to assess whether it is in a good position to probide meaningful data. As one enquiry to the BGS found a contact was unaware of any measures to record events such as muck/slurry spreading it is likely that they have equipment but little expertise. One might ask why a geological organisation is dabbling in air monitoring at all. Why isn’t it the Environment Agency, who supposedly regulate emissions? The second question is, given the nature of pollutant dispersal by wind, why they have considered one monitoring point adequate. It is suspected that finance is the reason.

The purpose of a baseline test is just that – to establish the baseline. It is irrelevant what figure is arrived at, for example it may well be that naturally-occurring radon is at higher levels in parts of Yorkshire than in the Fylde. In either case this would help provide some information on the radon levels emitted by the fracking process. In the case of Lancashire it would also be possible to determine if any radon emissions were due to drilling and associated activities (eg released by drilling muds) as opposed to the fracking process itself. By refusing to fund baseline testing in Lancashire, where the first multi-well pads will be created from scratch, the government has refused to provide important scientific evidence. Radioactivity (from radium, which decays into radon) in drilling cuttings, cores and muds has become an issue in the US. The Environment Agency has refused to accept they need to test. With no evidence they say it is insignificant. This is building a legacy of radioactive build-up in the landfills where these materials may be dumped.

The conjecture regarding funding being the reason for lack of carrying out the PHE recommendations has been confirmed in the case of radon baseline monitoring. In Yorkshire the BEIS made funds available for a joint monitoring venture between the BGS and PHE. In Lancashire they made no such grant. One must ask why, since Lancashire is a significant testing ground for shale gas exploration? Why has Fylde MP Mark Menzies not taken this issue up in Parliament?

In the absence of government funding, I am reliably informed that BGS confirm that BGS and PHE have to find their own funding for monitoring. And PHE, the government flagship health research organisation, has NO MONEY to spare for radon baseline monitoring.

The message is clear. We are seeing one more example of the government’s failure to deliver on its promise of high standard regulation of shale gas. Far, far, worse, they are rushing ahead putting the health of communities at risk by wilful disregard for the precautionary principle. Radon is just ONE example of this slapdash approach from a government which is either ignorant or careless of the risk.

The democratic planning system has failed the people of Lancashire. Now the government’s regulatory promises which might at least offer some protection or advance warning of high risk are once again shown to be worthless.