A new Report from The Climate Council report “Kicking the gas habit: How gas is harming our health” is a comprehensive review of approximately 100 mostly scientific and medical studies detailing the known and potential health harms caused by the mining of natural gas.
It is authoritative and comprehensive and provides conclusions and recommendations based on science and not on personal opinion.
Many of these findings have been in the scientific and medical literature for a decade or more and have been dismissed by industry and disregarded by governments supposedly responsible for the health of communities.
Indeed for the past decade, evidence that has been presented to numerous parliamentary committees and their recommendations has been deliberately ignored.
In evidence given to the Senate Committee in April 2016, on the “Adequacy of Australia’s legislative, regulatory and policy framework for unconventional gas mining”, doctors said
The interim report of the 2011 Senate inquiry recommended ‘a comprehensive review of chemicals used in fracking completed within the next two years’. We have yet to see an outcome. The report also noted that ‘it is vital that the interests of a relatively short lived industry are not allowed to put at risk vital food-producing industries, and the land, water and communities on which they depend’
In fact, the 2011 Senate Committee referred to was by the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee Inquiry into management of the Murray Darling Basin – impact of mining coal seam gas. The evidence presented was by Doctors for the Environment Australia including two scientific leaders of our nation Professor Peter Doherty and the late Professor Tony McMichael;-
Coal seam gas mining (CSG) may have adverse impacts on human health by contamination of drinking and agricultural-use water, and air. Contaminants of concern include many of the chemicals used for fracking, as well as toxic substances produced through this process and mobilised from the sedimentary regions drilled. Some of these compounds can produce short-term health effects and some may contribute to systemic illness and/or cancer many years later
Today Australia is scrambling to drill hundreds more wells and more are planned. How could this be when the evidence of health impacts has hardened considerably?
We know the answer lies in governments close association and perhaps subservience to the fossil fuel industries and with the media predominance of one company, to bring exclusion of effective climate change policy.
So to put the current Climate Council report in context, it is a massive compilation of evidence, in effect an indictment of government inaction. The hope must be that the community and a spectrum of politicians will at last demand action.
The health associations with gas mining are shown in Figure 7 of the Report. (See below).
Of the many health impacts described, the most concerning must be the occurrence of increased infant mortality and congenital heart defects and other birth defects occurring in some US gas fields.
These abnormalities are most frequent at the centre of gas fields and decrease in incidence in communities situated further and further away from the presumed source of pollution. Similar findings occurred for childhood leukaemia.
Many potential chemicals are identified as possible causative agents transmitted by air or water pollution. Most suspicion lies with endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) released during fracking of coal or shale.
Their disruption of hormones is most damaging in fast growing tissues, the unborn or young children.
PFAS chemicals used in fire fighting are EDCs and their remaining presence in land and water sources around military bases have lead to loss of land use and heavy payout to communities. PFAS chemicals are known as ‘Forever Chemicals” for they persist in the land for decades.
Many other naturally occurring chemicals found underground are hazardous when brought to the surface. They include naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene as well as chemicals used in the drilling process.
One has to consider the implications for gas companies, farmers, other landholders and governments as the research into these chemicals in mine water effluent progresses.
The Climate Council report demonstrates the sheer complexity and multiple potential harms which have allowed gas mining to continue by avoiding regulation. This is particularly so in Australia and the US where regulatory systems differ between states and the national governments.
The opportunity for reform in the two nations can be summated in two words, Biden and the EPA. Already the President is reinstating federal regulations on methane emissions rolled back by Trump. The EPA has the scientific clout to address the health impacts. In Australia we have neither leadership not an EPA.
Opportunities for evasion of regulations abound with vast usage of ground water in a drying climate and with air pollution, noise pollution from servicing widely distributed wells, supply, monitoring of wells, flaring and measurement of methane leakage; in fact the latter is estimated in national accounting rather than measured.
Add to the identifiable litany of resulting maladministration, the advocacy of many rural and regional elected representatives for more gas development.
There must be deep concerns for the health legacies which will remain after this industry closes, which it must do if the climate crisis is to be contained.
My article has mentioned only a few of the medical concerns with gas. The Climate Council report covers many more such as the asthma and mental effects on children of the use of gas in the home and schools; the role of gas in producing ground level ozone to cause respiratory harm in gas field communities, preterm births, skin diseases and cancer.
It is vital that the energy-orientated readership of Renew Economy read the Climate Council report and take these issues into account in their decision making.
Professor David Shearman is AM PhD FRACP is emeritus professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide and Co-Founder, Doctors for the Environment Australia. www.dea.org.au