Coal seam gas and cancer risk: Report

An Australian Senate committee has been looking into the impact of coal seam gas (CSG) mining on the Murray-Darling Basin that has moved to Dalby on Queensland's western Darling Downs today. The Senate Standing Committee on Rural Affairs and Transport is touring southern Queensland examining the environmental consequences of CSG mining on the Murray-Darling River system.

Today's sitting in Dalby will hear from rural lobby group AgForce and landholder Ruth Armstrong, who is fighting to keep a mining company off her Darling Downs property. Yesterday's meeting in Roma heard from landholder groups and Maranoa Mayor Robert Loughnan.

A medical lobby group called Doctors for the Environment also told the hearing yesterday it was worried about toxic chemicals, water contamination and the impact on public health. A group of six medical experts, including a former Queensland government epidemiologist, submitted a report to a Senate inquiry saying the state's ban on cancer-causing chemicals won't protect the community from serious health risks. Their submission says the process of injecting water or other fluids into cracks in rock to extract gas, known as ‘fracking’, releases toxic and cancer-causing chemicals, collectively known as BTEX, that naturally exist in coal seams.

The United States and other countries have used BTEX to ‘frack’ but Queensland has banned the use of these chemicals in the process. But ‘fracking’ could in itself release the chemicals, the submission says. It said, “The ‘fracking’ process itself can release BTEX from natural gas reservoirs, allowing them to escape into aquifers or the surrounding air…BTEX chemicals have been found after at least two ‘fracking’ operations in Queensland.” It said long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause leukemia, affect the reproductive system and harm unborn children. “BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) are frequently found together in petroleum compounds…They are in a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds which easily vaporize so people can be exposed through drinking water, bathing or breathing in vapor. Long-term exposure to benzene for instance, even in very small amounts, can affect the bone marrow, causing anemia and increasing the risk of leukemia, and can affect unborn children.” They say toluene and ethylbenzene can damage the nervous system, liver and kidneys and ethylbenzene is a possible human carcinogen.

Councilor Loughnan says he hopes federal senators treat the growing concerns about the CSG industry seriously. He said, “I think that we got the message across that there is a huge impact in our towns here in the Maranoa, particularly on the infrastructure and not just our infrastructure either. We're talking about private property as well as Crown land such as the Warrego Highway and the other roads as well.”

The Queensland Government says it will consider any new evidence about the impact of CSG mining. Premier Anna Bligh says the committee's final report will be taken into account. She said, “We want to make sure that we get all the prosperity that's available for Queenslanders out of this resource, but we want to do it sustainably and in a way that is environmentally sound…We'll have a look at this material but what we do know is that Queensland, unlike places in the United States, has banned the use of these chemicals.”

State opposition deputy leader Tim Nicholls said the Liberal National Party was well aware of CSG concerns. “We've been raising concerns about coal seam gas for some considerable time now…The government's been slow off the mark in terms of providing policy guidance and those sorts of things,” he said.

The professors behind the submission include former Queensland Health communicable diseases epidemiologist Dr John Sheridan, University of Melbourne microbiology and immunology professor Peter Doherty and Australian National University professor of population health Anthony McMichael.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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