South Africa is about to embark on exploratory high-volume hydraulic fracturing to extract the huge reserves of natural gas contained in shale rocks in the Karoo. Permission has been granted by the government to start exploratory fracking in an area which will affect the Karoo, parts of the Free State, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, and a portion of KwaZulu-Natal. If the gas deposits are found to be financially viable, thousands of wells could potentially be drilled in these areas.
The debate has been focusing on economic and environmental implications of fracking, I think it’s about time we look at the health implications of fracking the Karoo. Will fracking sicken and kill more South Africans than it will employ? Will the sick and dying people have any recourse other than fleeing their homes and jobs to protect themselves? And what will be the economic cost of that morbidity and mortality?
There is surprisingly little scientific evidence on the health impacts; however we cannot conclude that an absence of evidence of harm implies that no harm may result.
In addition to chemicals used during drilling and fracking, elements inherent in the shale layer are also accessed and brought to the surface during gas extraction. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, some of these elements are known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors or substances otherwise toxic to humans.
The potential health risks in the long term remains unknown to us all, it is paramount that we investigate the health risks of fracking in long term as many diseases such as cancer appear after years of exposure. With the increased risks of water contamination and severe air pollution, the fate of local agriculture is at stake. In the Eastern Cape alone,the agricultural industry employs over 60 000 people, including providing livelihood for many thousands of people.
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that harmful chemicals released during the fracturing process like benzene, cadmium, methylbenzene, nickel sulphate cause diseases like Silicosis, TB and Cancer will not only pose health risks to workers, but to other people as far as 200 KM away.
The debate about fracking has been a very interesting one where environmentalist have mixed feelings about the reduction of our carbon footprint by 58% less carbon dioxide than coal but with very high risks of water contamination. In the Karoo, the water is already a scarce resource, it is because of such dilemmas that I think countries like France and Bulgaria have banned fracking, while others such as the UK believe that it can be performed safely if regulations are strictly enforced.
While fracking detriments might be controlled by robust regulations and independent monitoring in order to protect the citizens and still enjoy the benefits associated with fracking the Karoo. I do not think SA has the necessary independent expertise in hydro-geology to monitor whether fracked gases will not pollute the groundwater and affect public health; and when looking at the track record of oil, gas and energy companies it’s not a good track record when it comes to avoiding pollution on the African continent.
Under SA law, hazardous waste management is a provincial responsibility. The majority of fracking is likely to take place in the Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal and some parts of the Free State these are under-resourced provinces with poor administration I am concerned that regulations will be less strictly adhered to than in well-resourced provinces with good administration.
Fracking may indeed have substantial benefits for the SA economy however the environmental and health impacts cannot be left unresolved. These have yet to be considered in depth studies. To reduce possible negative public health impacts, a precautionary approach should be adopted and provisions made for independent regulators. The voice of the health profession should be part of the debate and a full health impact assessment research is required before companies are given the go-ahead to drill, without that it would be irresponsible to allow an industry of this magnitude to be launched without taking all the necessary measures of protecting our people.