A report released this week in the US on air pollution from unconventional gas extraction, also known as fracking, showed that there are high levels of various chemicals of concern released during the process, with clear public health implications.
The Australian science community has had a mixed response, with one leading scientist from the industry-funded centre for Coal Seam Gas at University of Queensland quickly releasing comment that in Australia, this is not a problem. Other industry-funded voices piped up that “our environmental rules are so much tougher here than the US, it could never happen”.
Of course, anyone reading the papers knows the industry has been just as vocal about how inconvenient and restrictive and expensive and downright anti-progress environmental protection requirements are. So the argument “our rules are better” is one the industry is itself doing everything to undermine, with increasing levels of state support for their erosion efforts. Yes Campbell Newman, we’re talking about you, among others.
Former President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Professor Ian Rae pointed out that actually, the frackers don’t always go by the rules and in some areas, no-one is even watching to see if they do.
“Recovering shale gas is a messy business – there’s no free lunch! We have known for a long time that there are toxic impurities in oil and gas, like the benzene and hydrogen ulphide collected by these citizen scientists [in the report]. Formaldehyde is not in the gas but it’s an air pollutant coming from engine exhaust gases,” he said.
“There is variation from well to well in the composition of the gas … and in the skill and diligence of the operators in preventing releases to the atmosphere. They may get away with it in the boondocks where nobody notices, but people living close to extraction wells know when things are not being done properly.”
Associate Professor Melissa Haswell-Elkinsfrom the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW however, said that environmental health experts are unsurprised by the report’s findings as there has been increasingly sophisticated public health studies carried out in the US that demonstrate there is an issue.
However, attempts by some health authorities to undertake a similar study were like the party no-one came to, and it is instead the local GP who has the data.
“Despite the relative infancy of the industry in Australia, there have been many reports of symptoms in people living close to gas wells that are very similar to those reported in this American study,” Dr Haswell-Ekins said.
“A limited study conducted by Queensland Health in 2013, using mainly routinely collected information, attracted few participants and no evidence of a connection between coal seam gas operations and ill health in Tara, Queensland, where many families live very close to coal seam gas wells.
“In contrast, a local GP well known to the Tara community, Dr Geralyn McCarron, conducted a survey of 38 households, comprising 113 residents, documenting numerous self-reports of respiratory, skin, gastrointestinal illnesses, as well as dizziness, nosebleeds and eye irritation. Symptoms potentially related to neurotoxic exposures included fatigue, headaches, numbness and paraesthesia (feelings of tingling, burning, or pins and needles).
“There is no evidence that the air pollution and other risks of CSG are any less than the more comprehensively studied shale gas extraction, nor that events that have happened in the US are any less likely to happen in Australia. This paper from the United States could provide a valuable indication of a much needed missing link between this industry and reported illnesses that we currently lack in Australia due to inadequate routine air monitoring.”
- The report is available here.