The main concerns in terms of fracking's effect on health
The need for shale gas mining to extend across large areas, often brings wells and other parts of the operation close, and sometimes very close, to where people live. Many communities are conscious of the wide array of changes in their physical and social environment brought with unconventional gas mining. Key concerns, for which evidence is growing, are described below.
Risks from air pollution
An array of chemicals capable of causing significant health impacts may be released during unconventional gas operations. These include: 1) volatile organic compounds, including BTEX (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylene and Xylene), that occur naturally in the shale, and evaporate from the flowback wastewater after fracking and from flaring excess gas; 2) endocrine-disrupting chemicals; 3) nitrogen oxides; 4) hydrogen sulphide from gas processing; 5) formaldehyde (from the breakdown of escaping methane); 6) diesel fumes from extensive truck movements and 7) ground level ozone, that forms from mixtures of pollutants and which is known to travel large distances.
Workers, and possibly people living very close to hydraulic fracturing operations, may also be exposed to unsafe levels of fine silica due to the large volumes of sand used, increasing the risk of silicosis.
Risks to water quality and water security
Many of the chemicals and chemical types mentioned above, plus additional chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) and a wide array of known and unknown chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluid, have the potential to damage the health of people who are exposed.
Workers and community residents may become exposed through contact with water that has been contaminated through the handling of the large quantities of chemicals and wastewater involved.
Water security could be affected by the large amounts of water used in each hydraulic fracturing event (many times per well, many wells), contamination of aquifers rendering them unusable for human consumption, and in some places damage to the ecosystem that may reduce the quality of drinking water sources. These concerns would be particularly acute during times of water scarcity and could cause competition with agriculture uses.
Loss of mental health, psychosocial wellbeing and community cohesion
There are many avenues through which the unconventional gas industry can harm mental health and individual and community wellbeing. The initial phase impacts include distress and anxiety due to disagreements that split the community into those who support the industry and those who oppose it.
In the ‘boom’ phase tight-knit communities can feel inundated with strangers coming in, swamping unprepared health and mental health services. Crime may also increase. Such impacts are detrimental to the social cohesion and for some, the moral character, of the community.
In the post-construction phase, jobs decline dramatically and housing demand drops. Production ramps up with drilling and fracking, with its 24-hour lights, noise, odours, tree clearing and truck movements - causing some people to feel a deep sense of loss of control, loss of place and loss of peace and a feeling of being trapped and unable to escape. All of these phases present risks of depression, anxiety and increased use of alcohol and other drugs for coping.
There are particularly important concerns when considering the potential psychosocial and spiritual impacts of unconventional gas mining on Aboriginal people and communities. While there are no research publications to date, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are leading efforts to protect the environment and health in the face of challenges from mining and climate change.
Risks for children
Since 2013, there has been an increasing focus on the likely vulnerability of developing fetuses and children to environmental hazards as compared to adults. The complex developmental processes that occur during gestation are exquisitely sensitive to chemicals and signals in the uterine environment.
There is a growing understanding of the negative impacts of various exposures to the mother during pregnancy on birth outcomes, for example air pollution (PM2.5) and tobacco smoking on birth weight and preterm births, as well as alcohol and other drugs on brain development. Many of the chemicals involved in unconventional gas mining have reproductive and developmental toxicity. Infants and children continue to face higher risks from toxic exposures due to their higher metabolic and respiration rates, their smaller body size and smaller and immature organs, including the liver, lungs and kidneys that deal with or store many toxins that enter the body.
Children also experience greater exposure to toxins in the environment through outdoor play activities, compared to adults. It is also very important to recognise that infant and child well-being is highly sensitive to psychosocial and community stressors, including noise, negative emotions expressed by others and witnessing aggression and conflict. Despite this, only a small body of literature specifically examines potentially harmful exposures to airand water-borne pollutants associated with unconventional gas mining for children.
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts
Unfortunately, early claims that the use of unconventional gas for energy will have positive impacts on greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to coal are no longer justified. The idea that gas makes a good ‘bridging fuel’ to assist the transition from coal to renewable energy sources is not validated. It is now clear that the impacts of gas emissions were underestimated for a number of reasons.