Monthly Archives: February 2014

What do we know about the health implications of fracking?

Working closely with colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Depledge has recently published a review of our current understanding of the health impacts of fracking.

Here he provides us with an overview of what we know – and what we don’t.

Fracking is never far from the headlines at the moment, with David Cameron recently urging local councils to “get on board” and back the industry, in return for more money in tax revenue.

Yet with contradictory rhetoric and a large number of ‘unknowns’ surrounding the extraction of gas by induced hydraulic fracturing of gas-bearing rock – or ‘fracking’ – what do we actually know about the potential health effects of the process?

Fortunately, fracking is at a very early stage in the UK, with only one shale gas well so far tested. This provides an important opportunity for scientists to gather information and study the health and environmental effects – before any large-scale developments take place.

Despite the industry gaining momentum across the world, scientific study of the health effects of fracking is in its infancy. Yet early findings suggest that this form of extraction might increase health risks compared with conventional oil and gas wells, with larger surface footprints of fracking sites, their close proximity to locations where people live, and the need to transport and store large volumes of toxic materials likely to pose negative consequences for health.

In the USA, where more than 52,000 shale gas wells have been drilled, research suggests that risks of environmental contamination are present at all stages of extraction. These include surface spills and leakages, emissions from gas-processing equipment, and pollution from the large numbers of heavy transport vehicles involved. There is therefore ample opportunity for pollutants to contaminate the air, and ground and surface water.

What about those working on the wells? Whilst the toxicological data for the chemicals injected into wells (so-called ‘frac fluid’) indicate that many of them have known adverse effects on health, there are some for which no toxicological data exists.

Assessment of potential risks has been difficult in the USA because drilling operators are not required to disclose which chemicals are used. Thankfully, the UK Government has accepted the recommendation from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Working Group on shale gas extraction for full disclosure.

Detailed studies are needed along the entire supply chain of shale gas in order to understand potential health issues. The socioeconomic implications of shale gas development on local communities before, during, and after extraction, and how risks should be communicated, are especially important research priorities.

In addition to local health and environment threats, a key consideration is the contribution of shale gas extraction to greenhouse gas emissions and, thus, to climate change.

Although there is conflicting evidence about the comparative contribution of greenhouse gases from shale gas relative to coal, evidence from the USA indicates that instead of replacing coal, shale gas has rapidly become an additional source of fossil fuel, leading to an increase in overall global greenhouse gas emissions.  This view has recently been lent support in BP’s Energy Outlook 2035 report.

The degree to which shale gas extraction is developed should be based on comparisons with other energy options, including renewable energy sources, and greater investment in energy efficiency measures, taking full account of environmental, economic, and health implications.

When considering the long term viability of fracking, it will be important for health impact assessments to include the long-term implications of waste disposal, fugitive methane emissions, and other legacies with implications for human health, as opposed to analyses of only environmental and public health risks during active development.

With a technically challenging and globally industry, it is vitally important that data and expertise is readily shared.

Climate policies and declining fuel reserves will probably drive substantial changes in energy policy in the coming decades. Shale gas development shares many science policy questions with other proposed energy alternatives and, therefore, provides a good case study into the different factors at play – and the associated challenges.

With pressure increasing from industry and politicians alike, the local, national and global costs and benefits of new energy options over the short, medium and long term need to be assessed, and quickly.

Read more in a review published by Professor Depledge and colleagues in the Lancet.

While ministers dither on floods, social media springs into action

Rebecca Sandover, Associate Research Fellow in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, dicusses how people are using social media to take action on the floods crisis affecting the UK. Her article first appeared on The Conversation.

I’ve just returned from sandbagging near the swollen River Parrett at Langport, a town next to the flooded Somerset Levels. There, local people are using new media to take action in the midst of a disaster.

The flooding has been going on since before Christmas and is now reaching crisis point. An area of 65km2 around the Muchelney and Moorland is underwater, covering farms and affecting 150 homes. Isolated properties, hamlets and whole villages now find themselves flooded, roads are closed and services disrupted, potentially for the forseeable future.

Relations between government ministers and the Environment Agency have soured over the lack of support on offer to the victims of the floods. So while they argue, locals are using social media to help themselves.

A group called Flooding on the Levels Action Group, or FLAG Somerset, has emerged to coordinate activities on the ground, using Twitter to lead an extraordinarily effective community response.

FLAG’s Twitter page. Twitter


FLAG, which began life as a local pro-dredging pressure group, has been active on Twitter since early January. By 25 January, it had 300 followers and it now has more than 2,000. The feed is used to inform local residents about what is happening and to collect pledges of support from the outside world.

The group posts pictures of what is happening on the ground, such as photos of an HGV loaded with straw heading off from Rutland and locals sandbagging together. It also charted the arrival of the Khalsa Aid group, a British-based international relief organisation which helped desperate householders move furniture upstairs and make sandbags.

Over on Facebook, FLAG’s action group has grown enormously with 5,958 new members. The co-ordination group has been running for less than a week but already has an office and laptops for volunteers to channel offers of help and often urgent calls for assistance.


Sandbagging in Somerset Clare Larkins


The Facebook action group was used to call for volunteers to help create a secure riverside path for villagers of Burrowbridge, whose roads are all flooded. Some volunteers came to the scene after work to pitch in while others offered food to help keep them going. As a result, an impressive path was created out of piles of wood chip along one side of the river. It is the only way for some villagers to access emergency supplies stored at the local pub.

Returning to the warm and dry, I’m hooked on watching the apparently endless support pouring in from around the county and beyond on the FLAG Facebook page. There are rest centres for people flooded out of their homes, drop-off points across the county for supplies to be donated to those in need and information about where to find them is all online. Blankets, food, clothing and toiletries are pouring in after online appeals and charities such as PetAid have donated pet food. Perhaps most importantly of all, tonnes of sand, sand bags and Dutch pumps are being pledged and delivered.

Donations are just one side of the story though. FLAG’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are used to send out appeals for help and requests for donations, using a variety of hashtags. Tweets asking for any spare waders to be sent to a certain location in the area, appear to be particularly common, for example.

The social media pages run by FLAG have become the go-to community resource for help as more and more houses and farms have been overwhelmed. FLAG will post a shout out on its Facebook page and, very quickly, people pull on their wellies and head out to help. It has led to livestock being moved to safer locations and sandbags being distributed to where they are most needed. Now the group has organised a central list of contacts and emergency numbers to help with communications.

These activities, widely shared through Facebook and Twitter, are going unreported as the mass media focuses on high-level visits and the endless debate about how best to manage landscapes that are vulnerable to flooding. What these communities really do not appreciate is talk pronouncing their demise. Those who have not been here to see the people digging in to support not only each other, but also the continuation of their communities, have not seen the full picture of this flooding disaster story.

Through FLAG this inundated area of Somerset is drawing in grassroots knowledge to respond to reports from experts, as well as unappreciated comments from others.

The group has come up with a seven-point plan for dealing with floods in the future. This plan acknowledges the complexity of managing a low-lying area such as the Levels and not only calls for dredging and a tidal barrage on the River Parrett, but also points to the importance of increasing infiltration and creating attenuation ponds upstream.

In using social media, the people working together in Somerset have shown enormous community resilience and demonstrated how online tools can be used to make a fast response to a changing situation possible.

But it should also be said that this response is taking people out of their everyday lives. Community ties are being strengthened through this disaster but some lives are on hold and others are being ripped apart by the flooding.

Rebecca Sandover does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Why autocratic bosses are a dying breed

By Morgen Witzel, University of Exeter

The idea that everyone wants leadership and wants to be led is a popular one, especially among corporate CEOs, but how true is it? Recent political events in Ukraine and Thailand should focus business leaders’ minds on this question and start them rethinking their own role and their relationship with their followers.

The myth that everyone wants to be led is an old one, and like many myths, there is not a lot of solid foundation to it. Leaders like to believe it, of course, and why not? If it were true that our followers really want to follow us, that they look to us for a lead and will do nothing without our say-so, then life at the top becomes much easier. All we would have to do is give orders, and the masses would rush to obey them.

Until very recently, this was the perceived wisdom about leadership circles. There were two classes of people, leaders and followers. The former were the “great men and women”: the visionaries, the brains of the business who directed and guided it. From their Olympian heights they could see further than the common workers – and their innate wisdom (for why else would they have become leaders, if they were not wise?) gave them the ability to chart a course for the business. Leaders were chosen ones, marked out, special. Others recognised in leaders qualities that they lacked in themselves, and followed them accordingly.


Juergen Schrempp: Look into my eyes. ‘I am the boss’ Jan Bauer/AP

Many business leaders succumbed to at least parts of this myth. Henry Ford was among the most famous, believing that his success was due to his own powers and wisdom. In his own mind, he became the company; disloyalty to him was disloyalty to the firm. More recently we have seen strong personalities held up as examples of successful leaders: Jack Welch at General Electric (GE), Juergen Schrempp at Daimler and Rupert Murdoch at News International are conspicuous examples of leaders who believed that they were in control and expected others to follow them.

Yet, all four of these leader reached a point when they could no longer simply give orders and have them obeyed. Ford’s own managers and shareholders revolted against him and forced him to resign. Welch’s final takeover bid came apart at the seams and his career ended under a cloud. Schrempp’s ambitious merger of Daimler and Chrysler fell apart. Since the phone-hacking scandal, Murdoch’s powers have been on the wane.

Power games

These might have done better to have listened to the great political scientist and management theorist Mary Parker Follett: all control is an illusion. The best that leaders can hope to do is bring people together and try to persuade them to work together. That is the limit of their powers.

In fact, as one business leader recently told me, the only real weapons through which leaders can enforce their will is through hiring and firing people. If they can get the right subordinates into place, then they stand a chance of enforcing their will on the rest of the organisation. But even this is dubious. Who knows how long those subordinates will remain loyal if things start to go wrong?

Again, business leaders can look to the political arena and see how support has drained away from Yingluck Shinawatra and Viktor Yanukovych over the past few months.


Ratan Tata. In control. Gautam Singh/AP


One of the most intelligent and capable business leaders I have ever met, Ratan Tata, understood very clearly the idea that control is an illusion. Tata, who stepped down as head of India’s Tata Group in 2012, led people through gentle persuasion. He himself described this as “cajoling”. When he wanted to get something done, he first laid his case before his colleagues and offered reasons as to why this should be done. If they agreed, they in turn went away and tried to persuade their own supporters. If everyone agreed, then the thing was done. If they did not, the idea was returned to the shelf. Tata knew, beyond doubt, that leaders can only get things done if their followers want to do the same things.

Get humble

Other business leaders have recognised the same thing. In 1911 the softly spoken William McKnight took over the struggling 3M company and turned it into a global leader. How? By appealing to the rest of the company to contribute ideas and work as a team. In the 1920s John Spedan Lewis realised the fundamental truth that “his” company’s prosperity depended absolutely on the people who worked there, and handed over ownership of the company to them.

In the 1980s Ricardo Semler experimented with devolved leadership, making people responsible for their own decisions and actions, and much more recently Tony Hsieh at Zappos has abolished all hierarchy in an attempt to ensure that there is no difference between leaders and followers.

Today, social media is making it more and more difficult for leaders to enforce their will on unwilling followers and ever easier for those followers to co-ordinate their resistance. Leaders need to learn the limits of their power; they need, in essence, to learn humility. They need to work in partnership with their organisations, not attempt to rule them. Above all they need to learn that leadership is something that is best done with people, not to them.

We may need leadership, but very rarely do we want it. We want to be free, to do our own thing, to undertake the tasks that seem important to us. The leaders that succeed in the 21st century will be the ones capable of managing that paradox of need and want – and then of understanding the great secret at the heart of good leadership: it is not about getting people to do what you want them to do, it is about enabling them to do what they want to do.

Morgen Witzel does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.