The evidence that gas mining operations can harm those living near to the wells, processing plants and compressor stations has been accumulating since 2012. Of particular concern are impacts on the unborn and infants.
Unfortunately this may seem a minor issue when humanity is assailed by the relentless progression of COVID-19, and the realisation that the calamitous effects of the environmental and climate crises will soon be upon us.
Indeed, one feels guilty for raising another crisis that must be addressed, but mercifully it is one that can be solved with commonsense and decisive action once the science of the harmful chemicals involved is explained.
Few people realise that chemicals like PFAS are used in a range of oil and gas mining activities.
PFAS chemicals are best known for their use in fire fighting foam and for the great anxiety experienced by many communities where they have contaminated land, ground and surface water and fish.
These "forever chemicals" persist in the environment for decades raising fears of cancers and birth defects, bringing huge abatement costs.
A new Hollywood film Dark Waters, starring activist Mark Ruffalo, highlights the dire reality of PFAS pollution and the urgent need for strong legislation to protect human health and the environment.
In fact, a wide variety of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) that act like PFAS are found in gas mining wastewater. EDCs interfere with the hormones in our bodies, the messengers that control many aspects of our development and functioning.
Exposure to extremely small amounts of EDC is linked to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as reproductive and developmental disturbances, some cancers and nervous system disorders.
Fracking and health concerns
The US gas industry has expanded rapidly. Within a decade, 17.6 million Americans began living within 1.6k of oil and gas operation. During this time over 2000 scientific papers raised concerns about the effects of gas mining on health and the environment.
Gas mining often requires hydraulic fracturing (fracking), where huge volumes of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals are forced under pressure 400-2000 metres down wells to fracture rocks (coal or shale), creating openings for the release of gas. Vast quantities of wastewater containing both introduced and naturally occurring chemicals, including EDCs, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds are also brought to surface and must be managed safely.
Those living close to gas mining suffer more from asthma exacerbation, sinus infections, migraines, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches as well as hospitalisations for heart, neurological, respiratory, immune system diseases and some cancers.
Research has found that women living within 1-2km of wells suffer higher levels of infertility and disturbed menstrual cycles, spontaneous abortions, lower birth weights and congenital abnormalities compared to those living further away or in the same area before and after commencement of gas mining activities.
Fracking and farmers' worries
Among many worries, a question frequently asked by farmers, is 'Could the animals and foods that I produce be contaminated?' is highly relevant to gas development in Narrabri region where the NSW government has just approved 850 gas wells in a region of forests and farming communities.
There is little published research but in the US horses drinking farm water in gas fields gave birth to foals with a rare swallowing problem due to deformity of the throat. When a water treatment system was installed, the deformities ceased
Why so little concern in Australia?
Australia has a broken system of environmental and health assessment for gas projects. Approval for the Narrabri project in 2020 is based on an inadequate health impact assessment in 2016, before most of the research described above was completed.
Furthermore approval was given without most of the recommendations in the 2014 NSW Chief Scientists' Independent review of Coal Seam Gas Activities being addressed.
The concerns over chemicals were questioned at the Santos AGM but were not answered.
In contrast to the US, commitment to funding multiple, independent, community-driven health studies in Australia has been lacking.
This is important because, while it is easy to understand that breathing asbestos dust causes mesothelioma of the lung, proving links between chemicals and illness due to gas mining, when thousands of chemicals are potentially involved, is very complicated.
There is worldwide concern about the safety of fracking, with the latest ban coming from the UK.
If the Australian government similarly prioritised our health, the widely accepted Wingspread Precautionary Principle would be applied - as simply stated by the Australian Medical Association since 2013 - "if in doubt, turn CSG [coal seam gas and shale gas] off".
Australian governments would reap enormous health benefits for communities by leaving the gas industry behind and embracing cheaper, cleaner renewable energy alternatives.
Widespread replacement of gas with renewable energies would also eliminate its huge greenhouse gas footprint, which is driving climate change and threatening our very survival.
- Dr David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University. Dr Melissa Haswell is the Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing, Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at University of Sydney