On March 2014 the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published a report entitled: “Harms unknown: health uncertainties cast doubt on the role of unconventional gas in Australia’s energy future.”
In the report the MJA warn of the scientific research already undertaken that highlights the health risks that Unconventional Shale Gas Extraction brings to communities stating:
Fears over the potential health implications of hydraulic fracturing led over 100 medical practitioners to request the Obama administration to halt the construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on the basis that “[t]here is a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas extraction from shale … may be associated with adverse health risks through exposure to polluted air, water, and soil”. There are also environmental, social and psychological factors that have more indirect effects on health, and important social justice implications arising from the distribution of health burdens.
While there is a dearth of conclusive evidence about the health and environmental effects of fracturing, there is an emerging body of evidence on the areas of greatest potential risk and uncertainty in regards to water, air and social pathways. When taken into consideration along with concerns about the level of fugitive emissions and the potential effect on the development of renewable energy, these health concerns make unconventional gas a doubtful saviour for Australia’s energy needs.
Furthermore, MJA continue by warning that despite attempts to improve the safety of the overall process of Unconventional Shale Gas Extraction, the process itself cannot be made safe:
While the risk of well casing failure, spills and other accidents cannot be dismissed,these can be mitigated (though not removed entirely) by proper regulation and the move towards “safer” fracturing fluids. However, although any exposure would likely be to heavily diluted chemicals, the toxicological effects of some chemicals in their dilute form are not well understood. In particular, chemicals affecting the endocrine system — such as ethoxylated 4-nonylphenol, which has been used in Australian operations6 — can affect humans at extremely low quantities.
The MJA also draw attention to an all too often overlooked aspect of the process – air pollution:
Unconventional gas extraction is responsible for air pollution from diesel fumes from infrastructure development and stationary equipment, gas processing, venting and flaring. Fugitive methane emissions can catalyse development of ground level ozone and combine with PM to form smog, both of which contribute to respiratory disease, among other health effects, and damage to crops — gas- field haze is a well known effect in the US, with such pollution capable of travelling substantial distances. Shale gas extraction can also involve the flaring or venting of “associated” gases, which can become hazardous air pollutants.
The report goes further, and highlights negative social impacts that can in turn bring detriment to human health, such as the increased cost of living, high levels of alcohol and drug use, mental health issues and violence.
In a damning condemnation of the social injustices brought about by Unconventional Shale Gas Extraction, the MJA state:
Inequity can be an indirect cause of ill health, and the development of unconventional gas resources threatens to distribute health burdens in an unfair way. Most of the potential health hazards are likely to be felt by groups such as the elderly, children and the poor because of their vulnerability to the hazards involved, those living in rural, agricultural and Indigenous communities because of the location of operations, and future generations — the same groups liable to bear significant costs of climate change — while the financial benefits will accrue to the predominantly foreign owners of the resources.
Before continuing with the real life threat that climate change will bring, a problem that will be exacerbated by methane emissions:
A further health issue raised by any proposed energy source is its contribution to climate change, which has the potential to reverse gains in global health, for example by exacerbating illnesses and causing deaths through undernutrition, extreme weather conditions and disease.
In conclusion, as a result of negative implications both social and environmental the MJA warn against Unconventional Shale Gas Extraction as a means to secure energy for the future of Australia:
It is clear that Australia must quickly move beyond its reliance on coal for health and environmental reasons. However, when taking into consideration the uncertainties over health risks, the unfavourable comparisons with other energy options, the climate risks associated with fugitive emissions, the moral obligations Australia faces as a gas exporter, the potential displacement of renewables and doubts raised over the claim that gas will prove to be a cheap energy option, the scale is firmly tipped against the further development of unconventional gas.
The MJA report has added to a long list of reports which warn against the risks associated with Unconventional Shale Gas Extraction, a process which is earmarked for County Fermanagh.
Our citizens must ask themselves, in the face of mounting scientific evidence, that once the process arrives within our county’s borders, how can we expect to avoid the social, environmental and economic costs incurred, knowing that communities world wide have failed to avoid them for themselves.
If you wish to read the MJA report in full, click here.