On 8 January, the International Journal of Environmental Studies published a study showing an association between increases in hospital admissions for circulatory and respiratory conditions in Queensland’s Darling Downs area between 2007 and 2014 and increases in coal seam gas (CSG) emissions over the same period.
Dr Geralyn McCarron, a Queensland GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said the findings suggested “the burden of air pollution from the gas industry on the wellbeing of the Darling Downs population is a significant public health concern”, and called for an urgent “comprehensive investigation of the health impacts from the unconventional gas industry in Australia”.
On 16 January, the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, the peak national industry body, issued a statement titled “Pseudo-science no substitute for the real thing”, calling McCarron an activist rather than an impartial scientist, and accusing her of “trying to frighten people and pressure governments to waste health research dollars on her political agenda”.
The statement also included a claim that McCarron’s declaration in the journal of the study’s limitations, generally a routine element of scientific publishing, was evidence of the “pseudo science” involved.
When the industry is more concerned with attacking the messenger than addressing public health concerns, it’s time for health authorities to step up and take responsibility, McCarron writes below.
Geralyn McCarron writes:
The striking rise in emissions of air pollutants in the Darling Downs between 2007 and 2014 and an alarming spike over the same years in hospital admissions raises significant questions — not only over the safety of coal seam gas, but also how industry responds to safety concerns.
Hospital admissions of local residents showed more than a 133 percent increase for acute circulatory conditions (from 2,198 to 5,141 cases) and a 142 percent rise in acute respiratory diseases (from 1,257 to 3,051 cases). In my recently published paper in the reputable peer-reviewed International Journal of Environmental Studies, I suggest a possible link between the raised levels of pollutants as reported by the coal seam gas mining industry and hospitalisation figures from the Darling Downs Hospital and Health Services.
Within hours of the paper being reported in the media, however, peak industry body Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) responded in a statement trying to undermine my reputation, and by making sweeping and misleading statements about my paper.
While I do not suggest that the figures directly ‘prove’ that the CSG activities are causing this increase, my findings are in line with the scientific research on the known health effects of many air pollutants emitted by the industry, as well as with those of many studies in the United States where millions of people are now living close to gas and oil wells.
The statement that my paper is completely at odds with countless research studies carried out both in Australia and overseas is simply untrue.
The majority of published studies provide evidence supporting a link between the unconventional gas industry and a wide range of health problems.
Furthermore, almost no similar studies have been conducted in Australia, apart from the work of University of Queensland researcher, Dr Angela Werner.
Dr Werner found that hospital admission rates for some cancers and blood/immune diseases increased more quickly in coal seam gas study areas compared to study areas without any CSG activity in Queensland.
Disappointingly, APPEA’s response was silent on the Darling Downs emissions data submitted by the coal seam gas industry to the National Pollutant Inventory and reported in the study. It did not acknowledge the 60-fold increase in release of particulate matter, which is a known contributor to circulatory and respiratory disease and death.
Nor did APPEA comment on the 500 percent increase in emissions of oxides of nitrogen, which can irritate eyes, throat and lungs and increase the risk of hospitalisation for people with asthma.
There was also no comment on increased emissions of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde or sulphur dioxide – all of which have the ability to harm human health should exposure occur.
Following the inconclusive health investigation undertaken by the Queensland Government in 2013, Queensland Health very properly and appropriately recommended that more work be done regarding both air emissions and the significant stress on affected people.
Queensland Health specifically required documentation of total gas field emissions and the exposure of the community to those emissions. Because this critical, health-based 2013 recommendation was blocked by the regulator (DEHP), five years later the people in the Darling Downs are still living in uncertainty.
As a general practitioner and member of the medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia, I am proudly active in communicating research-based evidence for the protection of human health and wellbeing.
The evidence that chemicals and activities associated with the CSG industry may pose potential risks to human health should not be denied.
Sadly, the name calling and denial in APPEA’s responses suggests that the concerning rises reported in my paper are not likely to be taken seriously by those responsible for the increases in emissions.
I therefore look to those who do take responsibility for the health of people living in Queensland’s gas fields to consider the Darling Downs hospitalisation statistics a wake up call for urgent response.
Until there is a sufficiently large and well resourced study completed to support or refute the proposed link, I also stand by the people of the Darling Downs who, like me, value their health and wellbeing above industry profits. [Emphasis added]
GP’s gas study raises industry hackles by Julie Lambert, January 18, 2018, Medical Republic
A Brisbane GP has come under attack after drawing a link between rising hospital admissions for acute respiratory and circulatory disease and the escalation of coal-seam gas (CSG) mining in Queensland’s Darling Downs.
Dr Geralyn McCarron used statistics from the Darling Downs Health and Hospital Service (DDHS) and CSG emissions data from the National Pollutants Inventory (NPI) in her study, published last week in the International Journal of Environmental Studies.
The results raised a “red flag” about the health impacts of the CSG industry and warranted a comprehensive investigation, she said.
“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,” Dr McCarron wrote in her paper.
DDHS figures showed that acute circulatory admissions had more than doubled between 2007 and 2014, rising 133%, while acute respiratory admissions grew 142%.
The growth came against the backdrop of a massive increase in air-borne pollutants from CSG emissions in the region, seen in the NPI data.
The data listed nitrogen oxides (up 489% to 10,048 tonnes), carbon monoxide (800% to 6800 tonnes), small particulate matter (6000% to 1926 tonnes), volatile organic compounds (337% to 670 tonnes), and formaldehyde (from 12kg to over 160 tonnes).
The Murrumba Downs GP told The Medical Republic her research focus was prompted by anecdotal reports of health problems in communities around the gas-rich Surat basin and a lack of substantive research into these concerns in Australia.
Responding swiftly to news reports of the findings, the oil and gas lobby labelled Dr McCarron as an “anti-industry” activist rather than an impartial scientist.
“An article claiming that an increase in hospital visits is linked to natural gas development is completely at odds with countless research studies carried out both in Australia and overseas,” the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA)
“The article by Geralyn McCarron – who is known for her alignment with activist group Lock the Gate – fails the credibility test,” it said in a statement that omitted Dr McCarron’s title and qualifications and referred to her study as “pseudoscience”.
“Geralyn McCarron has long been associated with Lock the Gate and is well known for regularly churning out pseudo-science supporting their political agenda,” APPEA Queensland Director Rhys Turner said.
“The article fails to produce any credible evidence for her claims. McCarron is trying to frighten people and pressure governments to waste health research dollars on her political agenda.”
As noted by the APPEA, Dr McCarron’s paper acknowledged the limitations of the research, as demographic data for age, gender, population movements, prior health conditions and habits were not available.
In an interview with TMR, Dr McCarron said the APPEA’s claim that research in Australia and overseas had countered health concerns over CSG was untrue.
Overseas studies were consistent with her hypothesis about a link between health impacts and CSG, whereas in Australia there had been very little research at all.
“There has been a remarkable lack of substantive investigation,” she said.
One exception was a review of hospital data in three Queensland areas up to 2011, showing a faster rise in hospital admissions for neoplasms and blood/immune diseases in CSG areas compared with other areas.
“Until there is a sufficiently large and well-resourced study to support or refute (the proposed link), I stand by it, and I stand by the people of the Darling Downs who value their health and well-being,” Dr McCarron said.
In her paper’s conclusion, Dr McCarron said the Darling Downs acute hospital admission data was significant, even if the full range of underlying factors was unclear.
“It is urgent that there should be a comprehensive investigation,” she said.
Published research on CSG industry emissions and resultant adverse health impacts had supported decisions by France, Ireland, Bulgaria and New York State to ban unconventional gas development, she said.
In Australia, Victoria has banned the practice of fracking and put a moratorium on onshore exploration until 2020. NSW has stopped CSG activity within 2km of residential areas, and restrictions are in place in Tasmania and Western Australia. [Emphasis added]
Air Pollution and human health hazards: a compilation of air toxins acknowledged by the gas industry in Queensland’s Darling Downs by Geralyn McCarron, Published online: 08 Jan 2018, Pages 1-15 Journal of Environmental Studies
The paper offers an attempt to determine whether emissions from the unconventional gas industry are associated with hospitalisations in the Darling Downs, Queensland, Australia. Hospitalisation data were obtained from the Darling Downs Hospital and Health Services (DDHHS) and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) emissions data from the National Pollutants Inventory (NPI). Hospital admissions for circulatory and respiratory conditions, controlled for population, increased significantly from 2007 to 2014 (p < 0.001). Acute circulatory admissions increased 133% (2198–5141) and acute respiratory admissions increased 142% (1257–3051).
CSG emissions increased substantially over the same period: nitrogen oxides (489% to 10,048 tonnes), carbon monoxide (800% to 6800 tonnes), PM10 (6000% to 1926 tonnes), volatile organic compounds (337% to 670 tonnes) and formaldehyde (12 kg to over 160 tonnes).
Increased cardiopulmonary hospitalisations are coincident with the rise in pollutants known to cause such symptoms. Apparently, controls to limit exposure are ineffectual. The burden of air pollution from the gas industry on the wellbeing of the Darling Downs population is a significant public health concern.
Outdoor air pollution, especially in an industrial context, has demonstrated multiple negative human health effects . Air pollution increases risks for a wide range of diseases including respiratory  and cardiac [5,6], and is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths . Some effects are long-term and causation can be difficult to prove. For instance, a heart attack or stroke resulting from exposure during a day of high ambient PM concentration may be a consequence of chronic disease progression associated with long-term exposure . Emissions acknowledged by the CSG industry can be linked to both acute and chronic health effects (see Table 1, summary of air toxins/related health effects).
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. State-based research organizations expected to be active in the space have disclosed little research investigating the possible physical health impacts of unconventional gas emissions.
In other jurisdictions, specifically the USA, increased rate and severity of asthma attacks , increased hospitalisation  for asthma, cardiac, neurological and skin conditions, increased incidence of congenital heart defects , childhood leukaemia , low birth weight , and early infant death  correlated with the presence of the unconventional gas industry. International researchers have documented significant declines in air quality correlating with gas industry activities [34-36].
Despite appeals from health professionals to improve oversight, state and federal regulatory bodies have failed to act.
The critical recommendation from Queensland Health was that the regulator, the Department of the Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) monitor overall CSG emissions and the exposure of local communities to those emissions. DEHP acknowledged that they did not have access to data to allow for comparisons to the air quality objectives set out in the Environmental Protection Policy (EPP) (Air) to protect environmental values (including health and wellbeing).
There are noted anomalies in the industry NPI data. In 2008/2009 across all Arrow projects, there was detailed reporting of a wide range of toxins, yet many were not reported previously or since. During that year, levels of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen were significantly higher than recorded in the preceding/following year. No explanation is apparent. After 2009/2010 several projects across the Darling Downs and South West no longer reported benzene, though previously reporting significant volumes. Despite undertaking comparable activities, Santos consistently failed to report formaldehyde emissions while QGC reported up to 219 tonnes per year. Although reporting is a statutory requirement, data are self-calculated (estimated, not measured) and are not reported below a threshold. It is difficult to know how such reporting could be audited. It is plausible that emissions have been substantially underestimated.
Emissions reported by the CSG industry to the NPI have escalated since expansion of CSG from 2006 onwards. Toxins include particulate matter with over 6,000% increase in reported emissions of PM10 between the years of 2006/2007 and 2013/2014 (29.19–1926.9 tonnes). Reported emissions of PM2.5 increased from zero to 301 tonnes. Emissions of oxides of nitrogen increased by 489%, (1704–10048 tonnes) VOCs by 337%, (153.4–670.6 tonnes) CO by 801%,(754–6,800 tonnes) SO2 by more than 1000% (1.14–12.97 tonnes) and, remarkably emissions of the known carcinogen formaldehyde increased from 12 kg to 160.42 tonnes over the same time period. Further escalation in emissions is noted in the reporting periods 2014/2015, and 2015/2016 (Table 3). [Emphasis added]
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