News, Research

Gasfield air pollution linked to poorer health in SE Qld

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 10, 2017: A new Australian research paper points to a link between the escalating rise of hospital admissions in south east Queensland and a massive increase in air pollutants from the unconventional gas industry in the same region.

The paper published in the prestigious International Journal of Environmental Studies this month noted that between 2007 and 2014 hospital admissions for circulatory and respiratory conditions, controlled for population, increased significantly.

It found that acute circulatory admissions increased 133% and acute respiratory admissions increased 142% while at the same time coal seam gas industry emissions increased substantially.

The data showed that over the period nitrogen oxides went up 489% to 10,048 tonnes; carbon monoxide was up 800% to 6800t; particulate matter was up 6000% to 1926t; volatile organic compounds went up 337% to 670t and formaldehyde went up from 12 kg to over 160t.

The paper’s author Dr Geralyn McCarron noted that the toxins reported by the gas industry were not monitored and were based on yearly estimates. She noted that there could be substantial underreporting of the air pollutants as a result.

“The unchecked expansion of unconventional gas companies into what was previously an agrarian area of the Darling Downs has led to the generation of extra emissions attributable to a single industry,” the paper said.

“As acknowledged by the Darling Downs Public Health Unit (DDPHU) health impacts associated with Coal Seam Gas have been a major community concern. Since 2008 DDPHU has received a variety of health complaints related to this industry (including headaches, sore eyes, nosebleeds, rashes, respiratory symptoms, paraesthesia).

“Yet there has been a remarkable lack of substantive investigation into potential human health impacts of the CSG industry in the Darling Downs. No baseline environmental studies, human health risk assessments or health studies were undertaken before large-scale extraction took place.”

Dr McCarron said in her paper that the anecdotal reports of health effects related to CSG industry activity, coupled with the dearth of available research in the Australian context had motivated her investigation.

She said the changes in hospitalisations in the region could not be explained by the modest population increase of less than 10 per cent over the study period, nor changes in the median age of the population, up by 2.4 years.

“Many families, including young children are, for up to 24 h a day, living, breathing and sleeping in the midst of point emission sources in Queensland’s gasfields. They are exposed to acute peaks and chronic, lower concentrations of mixtures of harmful chemicals. Air dispersion throughout the regional airshed means the broader population is likely to be repeatedly exposed to lower doses of the same toxins,” the paper said.

It notes that pollution emitters assume that their emissions will be dispersed in the surrounding area to safe levels but that this management strategy was questionable given the unexplained rise in hospital admissions.

“Such a method for the neutralisation of harmful wastes largely ignores local environmental effects: large-volume point emissions, wind strength/direction and day/night temperature differences which could lead to adverse levels of exposure.”

The research paper concludes that there should be an urgent and comprehensive investigation of the health impacts from the unconventional gas industry in Australia.

Read the research paper here

Citation: Geralyn McCarron (2018): Air Pollution and human health hazards: a compilation of air toxins acknowledged by the gas industry in Queensland’s Darling Downs, International Journal of Environmental Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00207233.2017.1413221