There are a number of serious risks to public health associated with coal seam gas development. Research by Doctors for the Environment found that the current level of assessment, monitoring and regulation of CSG exploration and mining activities in Australia is inadequate to protect the health of current and future generations of Australians. Doctors for the Environment have outlined three key areas where there is the potential for adverse human health impacts:
- through contamination of water, air and soil
- through diversion of water and land away from agricultural food production
- from mental health impacts on communities who have had environmental changes imposed upon them
Research by the National Toxics Network found that there are serious risks associated with BTEX chemicals which can be naturally occurring and mobilised by the process of hydraulic fracturing. The National Toxics Network outlines the health hazards associated with exposure to BTEX chemicals as follows: “…in the short term causing skin irritation, central nervous system problems (tiredness, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination) and effects on the respiratory system (eye and nose irritation). Prolonged exposure to these compounds can also negatively affect the functioning of the kidneys, liver and blood system. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can lead to leukaemia and cancers of the blood”.
There are also risks associated with the water produced as a waste product of coal seam gas operations. The National Toxics Network found that this water can contain chemicals used during drilling or fracking, heavy metals (such as arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium), hydrocarbons like BTEX, as well as radioactive elements like uranium and thorium. When coal seam gas waste water is stored in open holding ponds it can pose a serious risk to the surrounding environment and to native animals. Animal skeletons have been found in coal seam gas waste water ponds in the Pilliga State Forest and extensive tree-kill has been observed in areas surrounding holding ponds and water treatment facilities.
A 2012 study out of the United States examines links between health and gas drilling. It found that case studies “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife.” The report says that “rigorous scientific studies” are required to avoid the gas boom remaining an “uncontrolled health experiment”.
Several health professionals have raised concerns regarding the impact of coal seam gas development on mental health. Upper Hunter psychiatrist Dr Steve Robinson says he has observed anti-social behaviour, angry outbursts and symptoms of depressive illness in individuals with no prior mental health history. Robinson noted that those with illnesses of depression, anxiety and paranoia that are currently under control run the risk of having those illnesses reactivated.
Lismore-based Psychologist Dr Wayne Somerville has also raised serious concerns about the risk of anxiety and depression due to a break-down of social cohesion resulting from the roll-out of the coal seam gas industry. Dr Somerville said that the coal seam gas industry could result in destruction of property, lifestyle and prospects and this would have a psychological impact and predictable emotional responses – he notes risks of anger, violence, and even suicide. These concerns about social cohesion and mental health are also risk factors in coal mine development.
A key risk to public health associated with coal mining is the impact of fugitive coal dust. The NSW Minerals Council says that “dust is generated at mine sites from activities such as the mechanical disturbance of rock and soil materials, bulldozing, blasting, and vehicles travelling on dirt roads.” Dust particles can also come from the transportation of coal from the mines to the port in uncovered coal train carriages. Dr Tuan Au has a general medical practice in Singleton and has found respiratory problems and decreased lung function in people (including primary school-aged children) living near local coal mines. The NSW EDO have compiled a fact sheet that includes detailed information on dust monitoring and air quality. The EDO outlines some of the effects dust exposure can have on human health including diseases of the lungs, including cancer, allergic or hypersensitivity effects and long term negative effects on lung function.