Insufficiency of regulation to prevent these risks
Regulations on paper are neither sufficient, nor appropriately implemented to prevent damage from the industry – due to human failure, for example. Instances of failure in the United States are presented in the fourth edition of the “Compendium of scientific, medical and media findings demonstrating risks and harms of fracking” (unconventional gas and oil extraction).
Evidence from studies measuring health Impacts
As stated previously, studies attempting to measure health impacts of the industry remain relatively few but are increasing, and are mostly limited to physical health consequences. Negative health outcomes that have been found to occur more often in groups of residents with greater exposure to shale gas mining, compared with groups with lower exposure, include:
• Developmental problems during pregnancy and infancy – lower birth weight, small for gestational age, higher frequency of serious birth complications, specific birth defects.
• Hospitalisations – for cardiovascular and neurological disorders and for those with existing asthma conditions (emergency department visits and inpatient stays).
• Symptoms – migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus irritation, fatigue, nausea, skin rashes, eye irritation, nosebleeds, and asthma worsening requiring medication changes.
While these findings are associated with unconventional gas activity geographically, they do not provide ‘proof’ of cause and effect. This is to be expected because we lack specific measures of exposure to the chemicals and stressors involved. Research necessary to provide direct causal evidence of effects, such as randomized controlled trials, are unethical and unfeasible in this context. However, an increasing number of studies provide support for a causative relationship between the industry and elevations in these health concerns by demonstrating:
• Plausibility – there are logical links between the health problems being experienced and the kinds of chemicals and distressing experiences associated with living near industry operations.
• Dose-dependence – finding a higher frequency of problems with higher exposure (closer distance to wells, higher densities of wells, more intense gas production).
• Time relationship – showing that the increases in health problems began only after commencement of industry activities in the areas.
Association still evident after allowing for other causes – for example, controlling for the potential contribution of smoking, socioeconomic status, community age profiles, legacies of other industrial activities in the area, etc.
Principles regarding public health
Good health is highly cherished. Australian citizens generally believe that their state and national governments make responsible decisions that protect their health above other considerations, even where there is uncertainty. Thus many people assume that the precautionary principle is being applied by government, i.e., that preventive action would be taken in the face of uncertainty; that the proponents of a proposed activity would be required to demonstrate its safety, not the community; that governments would explore a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and that government would encourage public participation in decision making.
It should be noted that many public health and medical organisations are calling on governments to apply the Precautionary Principle in this situation, and refrain from allowing unconventional gas mining to occur in Australia until there is sufficient evident demonstrating that it is safe for people and the environment.
Among these organisations are:
• Doctors for the Environment Australia
• Public Health Association of Australia
• Australian Medical Association
• National Toxics Network
• Climate and Health Alliance, which includes 28 professional health bodies including the Australian Psychological Association, the Australian Council for Social Services, Australian College of Nursing and the Australian Research Alliance of Children and Youth.