Thursday, 22 August 2013

Fracking’s radiation risk


Along with many banners saying ‘Could you kindly Frack Off’, ‘Police say no to fracking!’ For a frack-free future’, protestors at Balcombe this week have highlighted 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 this month in an article in the Daily Telegraph, David Cameron tried counter concerns over prospective environmental hazards such as water contamination  by referring to a "stringent regulatory system."

Cameron’s coalition partners also give cautious support for shale gas in a motion to be debated at the LibDem conference next month saying limited shale gas extraction should be allowed, provided that "regulations controlling pollution and protecting local environmental quality are strictly enforced, planning decisions remain with local authorities and local communities are fully consulted over extraction and fully compensated for all damage to the local landscape".

But neither of the Con-Dem coalition partners, nor indeed the protestors in Balcombe,  makes any mention of radioactive risks  arising from fracking.

However, Mr Cameron’s own Health minister, Anna Soubry, has told Labour MP Paul Flynn in a written answer in May that Public Health England (formerly the Health Protection Agency) is preparing a report identifying potential public health issues and concerns, including radon (release/emissions, my emphasis)) that might be associated with aspects of hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as fracking. The report is due out for public consultation in the summer. Once released for public consultation, the report will be freely available from the PHE website.” (Hansard, 20 May: Column 570W)

PHE have told me they now do not expect their report to see the light before the end of the year, which is hugely disappointing considering its prospective  importance to the public debate.

PHE is concerned to evaluate the 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.

Radon is unquestionably the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.  A report produced by the HPA in 2009,
Radon and Public Health. (Report of an independent Advisory Group on Ionising Radiation: Docs RCE 11, HPA 2009: 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, with a linear dose-response relationship. 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 1100 UK deaths from lung cancer each year are caused by exposure to radon (most caused jointly by radon and smoking”

Initially radon released from its virtually sealed underground locations will be in monatomic suspension, but then it accretes onto dust particles, pipework, etc, and some of it may remain suspended in the gas and come out in our cookers.

US concerns
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( Dr Resnikoff estimated radon levels from the Marcellus gas field - the nearest one being exploited to New York - as up to 70 times the average. Dr Resnikoff’s group, now based in Vermont, used be to be based in Brooklyn, New York, hence its work on shale gas being piped to New York consumers. RWMAs suggest some shale gas deposits contain as much as 30 times the radiation that is found in normal background.

Moreover, Professor, James W. Ring, Winslow Professor of Physics Emeritus, 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 lungʼs tissue and eventually leading to lung cancer.”


Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Using the general rule of thumb of 10 half-lives to decay to 1/1000 of original concentration, that would be 38 days, or roughly one month, depending on how radioactive it was to start.


Fracked gas would  thus  need to  be stored for at least a month before being  distributed to peoples’ 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 ministers hav reas any of the Radon Council’s literature, so gung-ho are they for fracking!

At the end of July the Communities Department published its Revision of building regulation policy on radon. In the impact assessment it explains the reason for the revised regulation is:

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 later adds “The respective cumulative risks of lung cancer [from radon exposure] affecting people by age 75 years in the UK at 100 and 200 Bq m-3 are 0.42% and 0.47% for non-smokers and 17% and 19% for continuing smokers.”

It also states 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 cheerleading for expanded fracking, despite its possible radon risk.

In January 2012 the European Commission Energy Directorate released a 100-page report on ‘Unconventional Gas in Europe,’ primarily assessing the situation in France, Germany, Poland and Sweden. It has a section on environmental liability, but no mention of radon pollution.

Nuclear waste too

In addition, both RWMA in the US and the internationally respected Norwegian environmental consultancy, DNV (Det Norske Veritas have identified radioactive waste contamination as one problem with fracking, arising from  contaminated rock cuttings and cores to which have the potential for exposure to radioactivity on health. Risks relating to NORM (naturally occurring radioactive materials) contaminated downhole and surface equipment should also be considered, both suggest.

(Risk Management of Shale Gas Developments and Operations January 2013 DNV-RP-U301;

The Commission report also 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 80 ppm (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 (NORMS), 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 Dr Caroline Lucas, who was arrested on Monday this week while protesting against fracking in Balcombe, initiated a debate on fracking on 18 July, the last day of Parliament before the summer recess, drew attention to the radon risk and the outstanding PHE report. She asked the 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 Caroline Lucas’ questions on environmental hazards of fracking, but ignored the one on radon risks. I wonder why?





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