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Commentary

Health concerns associated with unconventional gas mining in rural Australia

Submitted: 29 November 2015
Revised: 18 August 2016
Accepted: 29 August 2016
Published: 12 December 2016

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Author(s) : Haswell MR, Bethmont A.

Melissa HaswellAnna Bethmont

Citation: Haswell MR, Bethmont A.  Health concerns associated with unconventional gas mining in rural Australia. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2016; 16: 3825. Available: http://www.rrh.org.au/articles/subviewnew.asp?ArticleID=3825 (Accessed 19 January 2017)

ABSTRACT

Context:  Many governments globally are investigating the benefits and risks associated with unconventional gas mining for shale, tight and coal seam gas (coalbed methane) to determine whether the industry should proceed in their jurisdiction. Most locations likely to be developed are in rural areas, with potential impact on farmers and small communities. Despite significant health concerns, public health knowledge and growing evidence are often overlooked in decision-making. It is difficult to gain a broad but accurate understanding of the health concerns for rural communities because the evidence has grown very recently and rapidly, is complex and largely based in the USA, where the industry is advanced. In 2016, a concerned South Australian beef and lamb farmer in an area targeted for potential unconventional gas development organised visits to homes in developed unconventional gas areas of Pennsylvania and forums with leading researchers and lawyers in Pennsylvania and New York. Guided by priorities identified during this trip, this communication concisely distils the research evidence on these key concerns, highlighting the Australian situation where evidence exists. It summarises key information of particular concern to rural regions, using Australia as an example, to assist rural health professionals to be better prepared to engage in decision-making and address the challenges associated with this new industry.
Issues:  Discussions with communities and experts, supported by the expanding research from the USA and Australia, revealed increasing health concerns in six key areas. These are absence of a safe solution to the toxic wastewater management problems, air pollution, land and water competition, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing risks, fugitive methane emissions and lack of proven regulatory regimes. Emerging epidemiological studies suggesting interference with foetal development and birth outcomes, and exacerbation of asthma conditions, are particularly concerning to rural families and livestock.
Lessons learned:  Rural residents in potentially affected areas should be supported to access and interpret the best current evidence regarding the multiple health concerns associated with unconventional gas mining. This knowledge should be part of wider discourse and decision-making processes driving local economic development and national and global energy choices.

Key words: Australia, coalbed methane, coal seam gas, fracking, health, mining, pollution, psychosocial impacts, shale gas, unconventional gas.

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