Shale gas exploration, currently planned in the Karoo, won’t only negatively affect the environment and water resources in that region, but could pose significant health risks to surrounding communities, a Cape Town academic has warned.
These include cancer and the risk of tuberculosis.
Professor Bob Mash, head of family medicine at Stellenbosch University, said while fracking might reduce carbon emissions associated with the use of coal and had substantial economic benefits for the country, the drilling and fracking processes – which released hundreds of harmful chemicals, including silica – not only posed health risks to workers, but to other people as far as 200km away.
South Africa is about to embark on exploratory high-volume hydraulic fracturing to extract huge reserves of natural gas contained in the shale rock.
The government is expected to publish final regulations for hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, this month, but President Jacob Zuma has already labelled the development of shale as a “game-changer” for South Africa’s economy.
Writing in the SA Medical Journal, Mash said exposure of workers to silica over long periods not only resulted in lung diseases such as silicosis and TB, but use of potential carcinogens during fracking, such as benzene, cadmium, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, nickel sulphate and boric acid, could result in the development of various cancers.
Cadmium was linked to lung cancer as well as kidney, breast and prostate cancer while ethylbenzene was a possible carcinogen with links to kidney damage. Formaldehyde was linked to leukaemia and brain tumours.
Mash said no comprehensive health assessments had been done as part of the decision-making up to now, prompting him to call for a precautionary approach to fracking in South Africa.
Exploratory fracking was expected to cover an area of about 200 000km2, including the Karoo, parts of the Free State, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and portions of KwaZulu-Natal.
“The voice of the health profession should be part of the debate, and a full health assessment is required before companies are given the go-ahead to drill,” Mash said.