Public Health Experts Back Chief Medical Officer on Fracking Impact Study

24 04 2014
TJ  APR 24
ADAM HURAS LEGISLATURE BUREAU

FREDERICTON • Two experts on the public health effects of shale gas development are endorsing the work of the province’s chief medical officer of health in calling for health or human impact assessments in addition to environmental scrutiny on proposed industry activity. 

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school of public health, and Dr.Lalita Bharadwaj,a University of Saskatchewan school of public health toxicologist, say study beyond an environmental impact assessment of shale gas development is necessary to full identify risks to human health. 

The two will deliver a New Brunswick Energy Institute public lecture in Saint John on Thursday evening. 

Goldstein and Bharadwaj are research fellows with the energy institute, the independent body meant to provide trusted research on the shale gas industry and other provincial energy projects. 

They are also part of a study ordered by the Canadian government on the potential health and environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, which is expected to be released in the next couple weeks. 

Goldstein will deliver a presentation in Saint John entitled Public Health Implications of Unconventional Gas Drilling. Bharadwaj will speak on the potential health risks of shale gas development in Canada. 

Both endorse chief medical officer of health Dr.Eilish Cleary’s push for health or human impact assessments on proposed shale gas development. 

“I will be paraphrasing what I think is excellent work that has been done in New Brunswick – the chief medical officer’s report I thought was superb,”Goldstein said, when asked about his presentation. “I will compare that to other reports that basically say the same thing about what ought to be done.” 

Cleary released a report on her own initiative in October 2012, saying strong measures to protect public health must be put in place before further development of a shale gas industry is allowed. 

She said at the time that New Brunswick’s infrastructure and legislation weren’t strong enough to ensure public health is protected should the shale gas industry be expanded. 

Cleary recently stated that while the province’s environmental impact assessment aims to mitigate industry’s impact, a similar process is not available to look out for the environment or people. 

Bharadwaj said there are differences between environmental and health or human impact assessments. 

“In terms of the differences, environmental impact assessment primarily looks at the biophysical environment – the concentration of chemicals or pollutants that might be present in soil, water, air, the physical environment,”she said. 

Bharadwaj said the focus is the environment while also analyzing the risk to the physical health of individuals. 

“But a human impact assessment takes into account all the determinants of health – the social environment, the economic environment, behaviour and lifestyle and physical environment,”she said.“Human impact assessment takes more of a holistic approach and includes the determinants of health going beyond those biophysical impacts. 

“A human impact assessment is an approach that will lead to identification of risk, the mitigation measures that are required, and the management systems that are required to alleviate potential risk.” 

Bharadwaj added: “I know the chief medical officer is definitely pushing for human impact assessment inclusion in the environmental impact assessment process.” 

Cleary has stated that while much concern centres on the possibility of pollution and contamination, the province must also prepare for the possible social impact of the industry’s growth. 

She pointed to the so-called “boomtown effect”where rapid change in population, industrialization and economic prosperity also leads to a host of social ills that impact community health. They can range from increased rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted infections, to domestic violence, as well as inadequate housing and increased cost of living. 

Energy Minister Craig Leonard said earlier this month that there has been a “breakdown in communication” between Cleary and the Tory government over shale gas rules that aim to protect the health of New Brunswickers. 

“The Department of Health does sit on the technical review committee for the environmental impact assessment process,”Leonard said. 

“Dr. Cleary’s comments saying that the environmental impact assessment is for industry – the EIA is there to protect communities and protect the environment to make sure that projects that are moving forward are moving forward in a way that will protect the government and the surrounding communities.” 

Leonard added: “The Department of Health plays a role in that. If they see issues that they feel have to be dealt with before an approval is given they certainly make sure that is put in place.” 

Goldstein said the human impact assessment can contemplate complex industrial activity where more variables and potentially more risk are involved. 

“The more variables the more need for a human impact assessment,” he said. “In these kinds of situations you can’t depend upon measuring the environment, you’ve got to look at the health of the people.” 

Both Goldstein and Bharadwaj said jurisdictions should take their time in ramping up development. 

“I’m not sure why we’re rushing,” Goldstein said. “There’s the case to gather data.” 

“I think what is required is baseline information,”Bharadwaj said.“Characterization of the geology, of the water quality, the surface water, ground water, the air quality, and health – characterizing the health of the population that may be impacted by the industry. 

“I think that baseline data is required” 

She added: “Going slowly will allow that time to collect that information so that we can have some comparative data to compare baselines to when shale gas development happens.” 

How much time is needed is ultimately subjective. 

 “The question is ‘when do you have enough information to move forward?’” Goldstein said.“That’s more of a policy decision, but my feeling is that we don’t have enough information to rush forward right now and I think the New Brunswick Energy Institute is the right idea to be that source of information.” 

 Open to the public, Thursday night’s lecture will be held at Hazen Hall on the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus at 7 p.m. 

 Bharadwaj said the safety of the industry in New Brunswick will come down to how government regulates it. 

 “Safe development of this type of industry will depend on regulatory frameworks and followup on recommendations made by environmental impact assessments and human impact assessments,”she said.“So ensuring that there is capacity to deal with the issues around the safety of the shale gas industry.” 

 Bharadwaj said familiarity with the industry in British Columbia and Alberta is building those frameworks. Goldstein said by taking it slow, jurisdictions new to hydraulic fracturing will learn from others. 

 “In New Brunswick, you’re going to learn from our mistakes in Pennsylvania,”he said.

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Two experts on the effects of shale gas development on public health will deliver a public lecture in Saint John on Thursday. Dr. Bernard Goldstein is an emeritus professor of environmental and occupational health and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh graduate school of public health, and Dr. Lalita Bharadwaj, is a toxicologist in the school of public health at the University of Saskatchewan. Photo: AdAm hurAs/LegisLAture BureAu

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