DOCTORS for the Environment
Australia strongly supports the
parliamentary enquiry into fracking in
the South East.
Good health depends ultimately on
clean air, water and food.
Shale gas mining and particularly
fracking has potential to harm health by
polluting water, air and possibly food.
As the saying goes, prevention is
better than cure.
This is certainly true in medicine,
where many public health measures are
aimed at preventing sickness.
Well-known examples are
vaccinations and stopping smoking to
avert lung cancer.
Given the potential for fracking to
cause disease, this controversial mining
method requires health assessment for
the risks it carries in the short and long
term so these can be avoided.
The disaster with asbestos shows very
clearly what can go wrong when we
ignore the risks.
Two sources of chemicals in fracking
operations concern us.
Firstly, there are the chemicals used
in the large volumes of water pumped
deep into the shale or rock which later
return to the surface in water which is
placed in ponds.
Quite often, the names of some of
these chemicals are not disclosed and
some that are disclosed have not been
assessed by national safety experts.
The chemicals can reach clean water
supplies from the ponds or from failure
of the well casings.
Secondly, there are toxic hydrocarbons
and other elements, including fluoride,
boron, lead and benzene, in the shale
itself, which are brought to the surface
There they may concentrate in the
Some may also be expelled into the air
in gases expelled from the well-head.
Evidence suggests some of these
chemicals could cause cancer or foetal
There is also concern that exposure to
small amounts of chemicals over a long
time might have adverse effects several
A report from the US shows an
increased prevalence of heart defects in
children whose mothers lived in close
proximity to gas fields.
Inhabitants of the gas-fields of
Queensland (similarly in the US),
report nasal and throat symptoms,
but governments have declined to
investigate these complaints.
Such considerations have led several
countries to ban or place a moratorium
It is the duty of the industry to
demonstrate safety before mining and it
is the duty of the government to assess
independent reports of health risk and,
for many of the chemicals, it has not
been possible to demonstrate safety.
If coal or uranium mining was
proposed in the South East, the industry
would provide an
Assessment, the community could make
submissions and the health risks would
be assessed by health experts.
We are not aware of any publicly
available evidence that a health
assessment has been carried out for gas
mining in the South East.
Fortunately, our concerns can
now be put on the public record at a
parliamentary enquiry for all to read.
Around Australia, thousands are
marching over their concerns on
fracking for coal seam gas.
Many observers believed this is
happening in reaction to a common aim
of miners and governments for shortterm
This situation should be addressed
with proper regulatory processes which
value our needs for clean air, water and
To those who define these concerns
as hysterical, we say they are shared
by many scientists’ and doctors’
In particular, the Australian Medical
Association, speaking in regard to coal
seam gas, proposes that “all future
proposals for coal seam gas mining are
subject to rigorous and independent
health risk assessments, which
take into account the potential for
exposure to pollutants through air and
groundwater and any likely associated
In circumstances where there is
insufficient evidence to ensure safety,
the precautionary principle should
All the evidence suggests this
statement should also apply to shale
Dr David Shearman,
University of Adelaide Emeritus
Professor of Medicine
Doctors for the Environment
This opinion piece was first published in The Border Watch on Wednesday 26 November 2014