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Health risks of oil & gas exploration in the EU: Commission launches public consultation on preliminary Opinion

On March 22nd the European Commission and its scientific committee on health, environmental and emerging risks (SCHEER), presented a preliminary opinion on the impact on public health and on the risks deriving from the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in the EU. Until 6 May, the collection of comments on scientific evidence is open on-line to interested parties on the European Commissione web site.

For the time being, there has been a limited scientific assessment of possible health effects in the EU, but it has been estimated that there could be more than 1300 different chemicals; emissions from onshore oil and gas use include biocides, limescale, corrosion inhibitors, oxygen detergents, surfactants and various hydrocarbons as volatile organic compounds (VOCs, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, etc.). Some of these substances that can be released into the environment as a result of operations for the research and extraction of oil and gas, are already recognized as carcinogenic.

Some of these environmental factors, being recognized as harmful, contribute to the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular or neurological effects. Some studies have documented that exposures may be higher in exploration than the oil and gas extraction phase.

Few epidemiological studies have sought to investigate the possible impact of emissions of exploration and exploitation of oil and ground gas for human health; the vast majority of these studies have been conducted outside the EU, generally in the United States. These studies have relied on relatively gross exposure estimates and indicate that the risk of some forms of cancer and adverse birth results may be greater in populations living around oil and gas exploration and extraction sites. The corresponding level of evidence is weak to moderate and therefore can not be ignored.

Another possible consequence of onshore exploration and extraction of gas and oil refers to seismic activity, so the level of evidence is moderate to strong.

For these reasons, SCHEER was asked to assess public health risks arising from oil exploration and extraction activities in the EU and to identify knowledge gaps. In its preliminary opinion, SCHEER concludes that existing epidemiological studies provide weak to moderate evidence that this activity poses risks to the general population. They also indicate that the risk of certain cancers and adverse outcomes at birth may be increased in populations living in oil and gas exploration and exploitation sites.

In order to fill the identified knowledge gaps, SCHEER recommends the following: