Border Watch opinion: Honorary Secretary Dr David Shearman on why DEA supports SA fracking inquiry

Border Watch opinion: Honorary Secretary Dr David Shearman on why DEA supports SA fracking inquiry 

Doctors group supports South East fracking enquiry


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

in water.

There they may concentrate in the

water ponds.

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

decades later.

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

on fracking.

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

Environmental Impact

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

uncontaminated land.

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

health risks.

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

Australia secretary


This opinion piece was first published in The Border Watch on Wednesday 26 November 2014

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