Senior research fellow DAVID LOWRY explains how the government’s impatience to frack the countryside could unleash dangerous amounts of radon
THREE SUMMERS ago, in August 2013, protesters at Balcombe, Sussex, highlighted their concerns over contamination of the local water table, fugitive emissions of fracked methane gas that could exacerbate climate change dangers and worries over community disruption from many lorries that will have to come to areas hosting fracking platforms with toxic liquids used to flush out shale gas.
Earlier that year, also in August, then prime minister David Cameron tried to counter concerns over prospective environmental hazards such as water contamination by referring to a “stringent regulatory system.”
Cameron’s coalition partners had also given cautious support for shale gas in a motion debated, and endorsed, at the Lib Dem conference in September 2013, saying limited shale gas extraction should be allowed, provided that “regulations controlling pollution and protecting local environmental quality are strictly enforced.”
But neither of the coalition partners, nor indeed the protesters in Balcombe, made any mention of radioactive risks arising from fracking.
Radon released from its virtually sealed underground locations will eventually accrete onto dust particles and pipework, and some of it may remain suspended in the gas and come out in our cookers.
Radon is unquestionably the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. A report produced by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) states: “Radon is a naturally occurring colourless and odourless radioactive gas that can seep out of the ground and build up in houses, buildings, and indoor workplaces.
“Epidemiological studies have established that exposure to radon is a cause of lung cancer … Exposure to radon is now recognised as the second largest cause of lung cancer in the UK after smoking and analysis for the Health Protection Agency indicates that about 1,100 UK deaths from lung cancer each year are caused by exposure to radon.”
Back in 2013 Tory Health Minister Jeremy Hunt told Labour MP Paul Flynn in a written answer that Public Health England (PHE) — the successor to the HPA — was preparing a report identifying potential public health issues and concerns, including radon, that might be associated with aspects of fracking.
PHE is concerned to evaluate the concerns raised over potential risks of radon gas being pumped into citizens’ homes as part of the shale gas stream.
Unless the gas is stored for several days to allow the radon’s radioactivity to naturally reduce, this is potentially very dangerous.
The current concern about how much radon is likely to be piped into people’s kitchens was spurred by a report last year by Dr Marvin Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Management Associates (RWMA).
Resnikoff estimated radon levels from the Marcellus gas field — the nearest one being exploited to New York — as up to 70 times the average.
RWMA suggests some shale gas deposits contain as much as 30 times the radiation that is found in normal background.
Scientific evidence on these concerns was published in the US journal Environmental Science and Technology in September 2013.
Moreover, Professor James W Ring, Winslow professor of physics emeritus at Hamilton College in New York State stresses: “The radon and natural gas coming from the shale mix together and travel together as the gas is piped to customers.
“This is a serious health hazard, as radon — being a gas — is breathed into the lungs and lodges there to decay, doing damage to the tissue and eventually leading to lung cancer.”
Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days, which means that fracked gas would need to be stored for at least a month before being distributed to people’s homes, to allow for this radioactive decay of radon.
The Radon Council, formed in 1990, is an independent non-profit-making self-regulatory body for the radon protection industry.
Its formation was welcomed in the interim report of the parliamentary select committee on indoor pollution, which called upon industry to provide a solution to the radon problem.
The first objectives were to identify the “cowboy” operators and dubious training courses then in practice.
Later there followed a first edition of a training manual and an agreed code of practice for the industry.
It does not seem that ministers have read any of the Radon Council’s literature, so keen are they to press ahead with fracking.
At the end of July 2013 the Communities Department published its revision of building regulation policy on radon.
In the impact assessment it explains the reason for the revised regulation: “Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas linked to lung cancer. Alongside a health and awareness programme and testing and remediation of existing buildings, current government policy includes targeted intervention through the building regulations which requires radon protection in new buildings in areas of elevated radon risk … We intend that the building regulations and supporting statutory guidance is clear on current radon risks, and ensures buildings are fitted with proportionate measures to prevent the ingress of radon and thus reduce radon-related lung cancers.”
It also stated boldly: “The chosen policy will maintain a targeted regulatory intervention (aligned to the most up-to-date radon maps), to ensure that all buildings in higher-risk areas incorporate appropriate radon measures.”
In light of this clear precautionary approach, it is odd that all ministers seem to be uncritically cheerleading for expanded fracking, despite its possible radon risk.
In January 2012, the European Commission energy directorate released a 100-page report on assessing the situation in France, Germany, Poland and Sweden.
The report records that in Sweden the handling of radioactive shales requires a permit in accordance with the Radiation Protection Act and the Radiation Protection Ordinance.
This is the case when the uranium content exceeds 80ppm (parts per million), it points out. This permit is granted by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority.
“Non-compliance with the permit can lead to it being revoked and, if done intentionally, the responsible person can be fined or even imprisoned,” it warns.
It adds that in Sweden, the possible occurrence of radioactive materials, heavy metals or saline brines is taken into account by the permit for the environmentally hazardous activity, required for the disposal of waste water.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was arrested as a result of her protesting against fracking in Balcombe, initiated a wide-ranging parliamentary debate on July 18 2013 in Westminster Hall, drawing attention to the radon risk and the outstanding PHE report.
She asked then energy minister Michael Fallon pointedly: “Will the minister explain the delay in publishing this research report when the public debate over fracking is moving ahead apace?”
Fallon replied to several of Lucas’s questions on environmental hazards of fracking, but gave no response to her queries on radon risks. I wonder why?
Dr David Lowry is senior research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts.