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EU committee: knowledge of oil, gas health risks 'very poor'
02 April 2018

EU committee: knowledge of oil, gas health risks 'very poor'
Call for open access database

29 March 2018 

The quality of scientific assessment of possible public health risks posed by the EU's onshore oil and gas exploration and extraction activities is "very poor", according to the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (Scheer).

The committee estimates that over 1,300 different chemicals may be emitted to the environment from onshore oil and gas activities. These include biocides, scale and corrosion inhibitors, oxygen scavengers, surfactants and various hydrocarbons.

The Commission asked Scheer to assess the public health risks and to identify the main knowledge gaps. The committee found that most studies are from the US, with evidence pointing towards possible health effects. It expressed its "surprise at the very poor scientific assessment of the possible effects of these activities in the EU".

Although the probability of chemicals being released to the environment is relatively low under normal operation, there is a high risk of accidental spillages. The physico-chemical properties and environmental behaviour of the chemicals involved in oil and gas exploration differ widely. Some are transported in the air while others pollute water systems.

Included in the 1,300 chemicals are reproductive and developmental toxicants and carcinogens. The committee suggests that "the risk of some cancers and of adverse birth outcomes may be increased in populations living around onshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation sites". Yet the evidence is "weak to moderate".

Scheer found "insufficient" quantitative information on exposure pathways and levels. It also identified a need for more data from environmental monitoring and human biomonitoring. "With the existing information on exposure and hazard, it is currently not possible to perform a thorough risk characterisation of human health risk associated with oil and gas exploration and exploitation," it concluded.

The committee says it would like to see an open access, EU database of all chemicals involved in oil and gas activities. To characterise the hazardous properties of individual chemicals, it recommends using a weight-of-evidence approach with in vivo and in vitro data, as well as Qsar and read-across.

Human health risk will result from exposure to a mixture of chemicals, says the committee. The exact mixture composition and exposure concentration will vary over time and from site to site.