Recently the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published an article on the uncertainties surrounding the health impacts of the unconventional gas industry https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2014/200/4/harms-unknown-health-uncertainties-cast-doubt-role-unconventional-gas-australias. This was an important step on the road to highlighting the science of both the known and unknown adverse health impacts of unconventional gas extraction.
Today the MJA published a letter by DEA members Marion Carey, Helen Redmond and Melissa Haswell following up these concerns and raising additional concerns about food and water security in the light of a recent CSG water contamination incident in NSW https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2014/200/9/harms-unknown-health-uncertainties-cast-doubt-role-unconventional-gas-australias.
Clean water and safe food are some of the most basic environmental determinants of health. Unconventional gas drilling poses multiple risks to human health via a number of different exposure pathways including accidental spills and leaks, use of untreated waste water for irrigation of crops and watering livestock, and damage to soils and ecosystems.
It appears that the contamination incident in the Pilliga was due to a leaking storage pond, which allowed leaked salty CSG produced water to mobilise heavy metals and uranium from the existing soils, contaminating the aquifer. This demonstrates that risks are more than just theoretical. In this case it was fortunate that neither humans nor livestock were reliant on the affected water, but there are many situations across Australia under petroleum licenses where an incident like this could have more serious consequences.
DEA and the AMA have been urging the precautionary principle in the light of known and potential risks associated with this industry. We wouldn’t expose the public to a new drug without extensive research confirming its safety. The onus of demonstration of safety is on the company, not the public. Why then do we not exercise the same approach to unconventional gas mining where there are still so many questions over public health and safety?