Unconventional natural gas development: economic salvation or looming public health disaster?
The unconventional fossil fuel extraction industry has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. Unlike natural gas extraction from conventional reservoirs, unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) requires that rock in the source formation must be ‘stimulated’ in order to release the targeted methane. This may involve hydraulic fracturing, depressurising the coal seam aquifer or burning coal underground.
With the alluring promise of economic salvation, job creation and clean energy, coal seam gas (CSG) has been strongly promoted by State and Federal governments. A network of wells, high pressure gas pipelines, processing plants, compressor stations, pumping stations, flow back ponds, vents and flares have already been permitted in agricultural areas and close to family homes.
However, the extraction of unconventional gas may have adverse impacts on the environment and consequently on human health. Emerging evidence from Australia and overseas indicates that when fugitive emissions are taken into account, UNGD may be no cleaner than coal. Data from the National Pollution Inventory indicate that thousands of tons of Volatile Organic Compounds, particulate matter, formaldehyde, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide are emitted from the processing plants each year.1 Impacted communities have voiced concerns about health, water and food security, extreme industrialisation of agricultural and residential land2 and depletion and contamination of aquifers and surface water. Dewatering the aquifer is a necessary prerequisite to mobilising gas from the coal seams.3 Now, for the first time in 90 years, in the wheat belt near Dalby (Queensland), bores that supported crops and livestock through multiple droughts are dry. The social licence of the industry has been questioned. In Queensland and NSW, police have been deployed to forcibly ensure that companies may commence activities without baseline testing and against the wishes of local people.
International Health Concerns
There are concerns regarding pollution and human health. The World Health Organization and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have linked outdoor air pollution and particulate matter to malignancies.
Specifically, there is a growing body of literature documenting the adverse health consequences of UNGD:
- Colburn et al.4 reported that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed. More than 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; 40% to 50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; 25% could cause cancer and mutations.
- Bamberger and Oswald5 documented in six US states serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses and wildlife including animal deaths, failure to breed and reduced growth.
- McKenzie et al.6 found that residents living less than half a mile from wells are at greater risk for health effects (both cancer and non-cancer) from UNGD than residents living further away.
- Krzyzanowski7 concluded Northeast British Columbia has experienced increased rate of cancer and other illness due to contaminants and stressors associated with unconventional gas.
- Steinzor et al.8 concluded: “Contaminants that are associated with oil and gas development are present in air and water in areas where residents are experiencing health symptoms consistent with such exposures.”
- Colburn et al.9 reported that the number of non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) and their concentrations were highest in the initial drilling phase. Many of the NMHCs had multiple health effects including 30 that affect the endocrine system.
Scientific data in Australia
The potential public health impacts of UNGD in Australia are largely unquantified due to the absence of human health impact assessments and accessible baseline environmental studies. Ongoing monitoring of air and water quality and investigation of health complaints is ad hoc and inadequate. The NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer10 acknowledges that human health and environmental health impacts are of major concern to the public and that few peer-reviewed academic publications or industry and government reports are available to help understand health risks and potential impacts.
The Queensland government, in controversial circumstances, permitted widespread development of the CSG industry close to family homes, with no systematic health surveillance or testing to monitor chronic exposure levels. Many of the chemicals used for drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Australia have not been assessed for their impacts on human health and the environment. Of the 23 identified as commonly used ‘fracking’ chemicals, only two have been assessed by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) regulator, and only for use outside CSG.11
Preliminary research conducted by Santos and Maher12 from Southern Cross University (SCU), shows methane concentrations around the Tara gas fields (Queensland) were significantly higher than surrounding areas which did not have CSG infrastructure. “These results are higher than values reported for conventional gas production fields in Siberia, one of the world's largest natural gas production areas,” Dr Maher said.13 Dr Santos and Dr Maher used atmospheric radon ((222) Rn) and carbon dioxide (CO2) to gain insight into fugitive emissions and observed, “importantly the atmospheric release of these gases may suggest the release of other gaseous substances such as volatile organic carbons which may be harmful to human health”.14 The SCU research serves to emphasise the lack of research surrounding potential health impacts of UNGD in Australia.
The rural residential estates near Tara are among the most densely settled cohort in Australia to live close to intensive UCND. Following repeated media coverage of health complaints in this area, the Queensland government undertook an investigation.15 Residents were invited to phone a 13 Health number or to lodge their concerns with their local medical officer. A public health physician subsequently interviewed respondents by phone. Only 15 people were seen in person. A significant flaw was the lack of comprehensive, independent environmental monitoring. Nonetheless, air testing within the estates showed exposure to a wide range of gases and vapours including chlorinated hydrocarbons, benzene which is a recognised carcinogen and propylene and acrolein which are associated with DNA alkylation. The report's conclusion was that the investigation was unable to determine if any of the health effects reported by the community were linked to CSG activities. This has done little to alleviate the concerns of the Tara residents.
In early 2013, an independent, unfunded survey was conducted on the health of 113 people from 38 households around the Tara residential estates.16 Although no baseline health data was available for comparison, the pattern of reported symptoms was outside the scope of what would be expected for a small rural community. Fifty-eight per cent of people surveyed were certain their health was adversely affected by CSG. Fifteen of the 48 children were reported to experience paraesthesia, while 31 children reported headaches, many of them severe. Other possible neurological symptoms reported in all groups included fatigue, weakness and difficulty concentrating. Eye and skin irritation were constant background complaints, particularly when outside and linked to odour events. Increases in cough, rashes, joint pains, muscle pains and spasms, nausea and vomiting were reported. About one-third of residents aged six and above were reported to have spontaneous nose bleeds. Two of the four residents employed by the gas industry reported similar symptoms. One was so severely affected they could no longer work.
Anecdotal reports of ill health continue to emerge in other UNGDs in Queensland and NSW but no formal health assessment has been undertaken. Ongoing concerns regarding a link between CSG and a suspected cancer cluster near Dalby have been raised by the local MP in the Queensland parliament.17
UNGD in Australia has been initiated with little regard to the potential human health impacts. Considering the scale of the proposed developments, increasing documentation of harm in international literature and reports of significant clusters of ill health within Australia, this surely is a situation which must change. Health professionals are concerned. Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), in their paper The Health Factor18 note: “Projects that have an environmental impact also have a human health impact as the two are inextricably linked…Clean air, clean water and nutritious uncontaminated food are all crucial contributors to public health.”
The AMA Federal Council passed a policy resolution19 “calling on all Australian governments to ensure that all CSG mining proposals in Australia are subject to rigorous and independent health risk assessments before they are allowed to proceed.” They recommend that, given the paucity of evidence so far gathered regarding the safety of CSG mining, “in circumstances where there is insufficient evidence to ensure safety, the precautionary principle should apply.”
Currently, there is no federal oversight of public health in Australia. It is essential that the federal government develops legislation, of a unified standard, to protect public health from the impacts of all extractive industries.
There is a need for fully informed public debate on the future of the UNGD in Australia and doctors must be willing to educate themselves and become involved. A controversial industry has been allowed to unfold with a striking lack of Australian health studies. There may be a dilemma for government with regard to royalty revenues versus public health but we, as doctors, must ensure that health takes priority.