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With two liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities scheduled to come online in the next two years and three more under development, British Columbia is poised to become a major exporter of gas to Asia. Well-drilling is likewise forecasted to massively increase in B.C.’s northeastern Peace River region to supply these facilities, with plans to construct dozens of pipelines to transport the increased gas volumes to the coast.

Almost all gas in B.C. these days is extracted through a process called “fracking.”

Last month, we published a study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health reviewing the results of more than 50 studies on health outcomes of people living close to this industrial activity. The results are concerning.

Fracking became widely adopted in the mid-2000s. The technique involves drilling vertically for several kilometres under fresh and saline water aquifers and then horizontally for several more kilometres. Because the gas is trapped in shale or “tight” rock formations, millions of litres of water mixed with chemicals and other substances are then forced down the well with enough pressure to produce micro-ruptures (hence, the name “fracking”) in the rock to release the gas.

These fracking chemicals can escape into the environment through spills, evaporation or leakage of wastewater. Exhaust fumes from diesel engines and gas flaring are other sources of chemical exposure.

Half of the studies included in our review focused on pregnant people and their newborns. Of these, the large majority reported harmful effects from living near these sites, including impaired fetal growth, premature birth and congenital malformations. Other studies found that living close to fracking sites may lead to a higher risk of asthma flares, heart disease, childhood cancers and overall mortality.

A number of reviewed studies showed a pattern called “dose-response” where an increase in exposure levels was associated with increasing risks of preterm birth, congenital birth defects and childhood leukemia.

Studies were also set in multiple jurisdictions across the U.S., and one each in B.C. and Alberta, suggesting the findings of harmful outcomes were not restricted to one location, a characteristic referred to as “consistency” in the scientific literature.

There was also evidence of “biological plausibility,” meaning that the observed relationship between fracking exposures and harmful health outcomes makes biological sense. At least 14 chemicals used in fracking fluid (for example, benzene) are known carcinogens.

At least 14 chemicals used in #fracking fluid like benzene are carcinogens. The relationship between fracking exposures and harmful health outcomes makes biological sense, write Margaret McGregor, Ulrike Meyer, Amira Aker, Élyse Caron-Beaudoin. #LNG

A systematic evaluation demonstrated that of the chemicals for which toxicological data were available, 43 per cent and 40 per cent were potential reproductive and developmental toxicants, respectively. Other chemicals and substances used in fracking fluid can induce inflammation and/or disrupt hormonal activity in human cells, suggesting a number of pathways to explain the outcomes found by researchers.

In biomonitoring research, Canadian researchers have reported higher levels of fracking-implicated toxicants in the urine, hair, home tap water and air of pregnant people in northeastern B.C. living close to fracking compared to the general Canadian population. Some of these toxicants were also significantly higher in Indigenous participants compared to non-Indigenous participants.

When fracking for gas became widespread in the mid-2000s, there were no studies on human health impacts. By 2014, when the B.C. government commissioned its first and only report on human health and fracking, three-quarters of the studies in our review hadn’t even come out. A re-examination of this new knowledge and evidence by the B.C. government is clearly necessary.

The fracking industry is disproportionately located in rural and remote regions of the province that are home to many First Nations communities whose health is already compromised by structural and systemic inequities — including the recent decline in life expectancy of 7.1 years among First Nations people compared to 1.1 years for other BC residents over the same time period reported by the First Nations Health Authority.

In this context, the decision to double down on the expansion of this industrial activity without taking pause to review the health evidence is especially surprising, and calls into question commitments to righting the health harms of anti-Indigenous racism and colonization highlighted in B.C.’s DRIPA legislation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and In Plain Sight report.

The “precautionary principle” is a term in public health decision-making that elevates preventive action when there is credible evidence of significant harms to human health — even when the study quality and data remain imperfect. Applying the precautionary principle, perhaps it is time to reconsider our policy direction based on the available evidence.

Margaret McGregor is a health policy researcher and clinical associate professor with the UBC Department of Family Practice.

Ulrike Meyer is a family physician working in Dawson Creek, an area heavily impacted by fracking.

Amira Aker is a postdoctoral fellow in environmental epidemiology at the Centre de recherche du CHU de Québec and Université Laval.

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin is an assistant professor in environmental health at the University of Toronto in the Department of Health and Society.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
April 19, 2024, 07:01 pm

This story was updated to provide the correct First Nations life expectancy numbers.

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Why is the BC Government willing to sacrifice people's health for the LNG industry?!

Sorry to be a stickler, but I feel like we leave ourselves open to criticism if we aren't precise and accurate. When you say above "a six-fold lower life expectancy" of First Nations people compared to other BC residents, don't you actually mean a six times greater decrease in life expectancy (LE) from 2019-2021 due to 2 public health emergencies, Covid and toxic drugs (ie. 1 year decrease for non-Indigenous vs. 6-year decrease for Indigenous people)? When you say six-fold lower LE, I read that for example the non-Indigenous LE is 72, so the Indigenous LE would be 12 (six times lower), which would clearly be counterfactual. Is that not the way most people (scientists and non-scientists) would interpret it?

Over the 20 yrs since fracking has been used, is there evidence of widespread harm to human health or the environment? As I understand it, health impacts are limited to 1 or 2 km from the fracking platform.

I've read that the toxins follow the underground pathways of water and accumulate in deep underground aquifers. Rock formations fragment naturally along seams, and this is aided by fracking, though that is localized.

In addition, gas and oil from "tight" conditions (i.e. solid rock) depletes very quickly at each drilling site, necessitating more drilling. One drill site can have several boreholes extending outwards, like bicycle spokes, and when they deplete more multi-directional drill sites are developed nearby giving some locations in the Dakotas and Texas a pin cushion appearance from the air.

More drilling for quickly draining resources is more costly. These are not the vast underground lakes of oil and gas from the conventional fields of the 1960s and 70s, which were very cheap to exploit.

Unconventional shale oil and gas sites are drilled often by companies with very high debt and narrow margins staying just ahead of the creditors with sales from new well sites. Other expensive forms of unconventional oil like oil sands mining and deep sea drilling help explain the upward cost curve of oil over the last few decades, and the sheer lunacy of allowing ourselves to become so dependent on it.

Canadian geoscientist David Hughes conducted several studies on the five US shale formations and BC's Montney and Horn River basins and found that the depletion rates were between 53% and 90% per well per year. The increasingly frantic level of drilling in shale evolved just to keep production rates steady, until depletion occurs -- often suddenly, like jumping off a cliff.

Hughes' 'Drill Baby Drill' report cites actual production data and the financial records of US companies that perfectly illustrate the precarious nature of shale and fracking. It's not at all sustainable.

And now the increasingly deleterious health concerns of people living in fracked areas is coming to light. And for what? Marginal corporate profits in what is clearly a sunset industry given the negative global impact on fossil fuel demand by renewable energy?

Canadian LNG is destined for financial trouble as solar and wind and powerful batteries insidiously decimate the demand for gas and oil in overseas LNG markets.

The industry hasn't done enough homework, or they dismiss demand destruction for their rather expensive product while underestimating the rate of growth in renewables in their export markets, especially solar which has recently become the cheapest form of energy ever invented.

Ok. But that's not evidence. It's making assertions. I'd like to see some evidence that, if you live more than 2 km from a fracking pad, you're significantly more likely to suffer adverse effects. I'd also suggest, depending on which province you live in, you check with local / provincial authorities for data on contaminants in domestic well water. You'll be surprised at how much contamination occurs in well water in the absence of fracking.