INDEPENDENT, cradle-to-grave assessments of the health and environmental impacts of unconventional gas extraction are urgently needed, says an expert on the health impacts of climate change.
Dr Jeremy Moss [PhD], director of the University of Melbourne’s Social Justice Initiative, has called for on-the-ground epidemiological studies of these proposed new developments, particularly in light of examples of contamination highlighted in a letter to the MJA this week. (1)
In the letter, Professor Marion Carey, associate professor at Monash University, and coauthors, wrote that the NSW Environmental Protection Authority had confirmed contamination of an aquifer by a coal seam gas (CSG) operation in the Pilliga Forest in north-western NSW. It found elevated levels of heavy metals and uranium in groundwater adjacent to a pond holding water produced as a by-product of gas mining.
The letter authors, all members of Doctors for the Environment Australia, wrote that despite several incidences of spills, leaks and accidents in Australia and other countries, the industry continued to downplay the risk of aquifer contamination.
Dr Moss and coauthors from the Nossal Institute of Global Health wrote in the MJA earlier this year about the health uncertainties associated with unconventional gas. He said these examples of contamination heightened the importance of pursuing independent evaluations. (2)
“Unfortunately, this is exactly what we said were the major risks when we finalised the report and sadly it’s come true. That just means there should be proper and independent studies of the potential health risks of unconventional gas”, Dr Moss said.
The call coincided with the suspension last week of gas exploration company Metgasco Limited’s right to drill an exploration well at Rosella, near Bentley in northern NSW. Drilling was suspended on the grounds that the company did not effectively consult with the community, a condition of its exploration licence. (3)
Dr Moss supports calls for a precautionary approach to unconventional gas. “This should be treated like a new medicine,” he said.
“The main thing about this issue is that we don’t know enough and what we do know is that it places too much risk on the public and not with the people who are doing the extracting, or who are benefiting from the extraction of the gas. I think that is frankly unacceptable”, he said.
Brisbane GP and activist Dr Geralyn McCarron, who last year conducted an unpublished survey of the health concerns of residents of the Tara estates near CSG fields in south-east Queensland, has repeated calls for independent assessments to be undertaken. (4)
Dr McCarron said even though it was known from spills in the Pilliga that there were serious consequences to the release of untreated CSG water into the environment, the Queensland Government had given approval for untreated CSG fluids to be deliberately applied to agricultural land.
“This land is in the middle of a flood plain in the Murray Darling basin. This permission has been granted without any environmental impact assessment or health assessment under a policy of ‘beneficial usage’. The implications for human and animal health are immense.”
Earlier this year, Dr McCarron had protested to the Queensland Government about the impact of CSG fields on the health of livestock and residents in rural Queensland. In her letter of reply, Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young said the overall conclusion of a government report last year was that a clear link could not be drawn between residents’ health complaints and the impacts of the CSG industry on air, water or soil in the community. (5)
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment told MJA InSight the Australian Government was funding a national assessment of chemicals associated with CSG extraction, which would examine the human health and environmental risks from chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing for coal seam gas in Australia.
The spokesperson said the assessment results would be available later this year. (5)
1. MJA 2014; 200: 523
2. MJA 2014; 200: 210-213
3. SMH 2014; Online 15 May
4. Doctors for the Environment Australia 2013; Media release
5. Department of Health Qld 2013; Coal seam gas in the Tara region
6. Department of Health; National assessment of chemicals associated with coal seam gas extraction in Australia