Global interest in developing unconventional natural gas reserves continues to increase, despite the paucity of empirical evidence on risks to the environment and human health. The operations required to produce natural gas from hydrocarbon reservoirs such as shale are spatially intense and sometimes occur close to human populations. Although research has been conducted to understand the potential impacts of gas development on public health, for the most part these efforts fall short. In addition, efforts to summarise the existing public health science tend to focus on regulations and engineering solutions, rather than on health outcome data and pathways of exposure. A focus on mostly hypothetical regulatory and engineering solutions may mistake best practices for actual practices, and supplants the empirical with the theoretical.

To the extent that they are technically and economically feasible, risk reduction technologies that mitigate adverse health outcomes should be deployed. However, reviewing the public health aspects of the development of the shale gas industry requires more than merely gesturing to technological improvements that lack empirical data on their effectiveness in the real world. The optimism that fail-safe engineering solutions can ensure safe shale gas development may result more from a triumph of marketing than a demonstration of experience.

Public Health England’s draft report thoroughly assesses the peer reviewed scientific literature on the public health implications of extracting shale gas.(1) It accurately presents the problems of air and water quality,(2 3 4 5) and it correctly recognises that many uncertainties surround the public health implications of extracting shale gas. The review was rigorous in its presentation of the evidence, but there are problems with its conclusions.

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