It is now recognised that the exploration and extraction of natural gas (methane) and oil from conventional and non-conventional sources poses many potential direct and indirect risks to human health and wellbeing. As recently as 2013, there were few peer-reviewed publications available in the health science literature upon which to assess the potential local, regional and global health related impacts associated with these industries. Over the last six years, however, public health and environmental science researchers and doctors have published over 1500 papers, with a substantial body of research findings, mainly from the United States where rapid and expansive development of gas and oil fields has occurred in close proximity to residential areas.
This Paper presents a comprehensive review informed by literature searches on PubMed, Scopus and the ROGER (Repository of Oil and Gas Energy Research) database and used to guide the Onshore Oil and Gas Policy of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Of particular concern is the clear evidence of the substantial and rising greenhouse gas footprint of the expanding gas and oil industry that threatens global efforts to urgently reduce emissions. Other health concerns include the wide array of naturally occurring and introduced chemicals used and in drilling and hydraulic fracturing that may be released into the environment through airborne emissions and wastewater, and emitted from the high level of industrial activity (e.g. compressor stations, gas processing plants, on-site diesel-powered machinery and heavy vehicles) surrounding the production process.
The review also found accumulating evidence of associations between residence close to gas mining activities and reports of poorer health such as asthma, sinus and migraines, skin rashes, headaches as well as hospitalisations for heart, neurological, respiratory, immune system diseases and some cancers. Furthermore, increasingly consistent observations of higher frequencies of negative birth outcomes, such as low birth weight, extreme pre-term delivery, higher risk births and some birth defects, have been reported to occur in pregnancies spent close (within 3 km) to gas mining activities.
Increased levels of stress, depression and sexually transmitted infections, aggression, criminal activity and traffic accidents have also been reported among those living near gas mining, likely reflecting psychological and social disturbance among individuals and whole communities. Australian researchers have found that stress and worries about coal seam gas mining may contribute significantly to mental health risks among directly affected farmers.
Of particular concern to Australian agriculture and remote communities is research showing an unpredicted but consistent rise in water footprint – up to 7.7 and 14 fold increases in water usage and waste used per well in semi-arid regions across the United States.
In summary, the review found growing evidence of direct health impacts as well as a clear potential for indirect impacts of gas and oil mining on essential environmental determinants of health, including a stable climate, air quality, water quality, water security, food security, community cohesion and, in some locations, geological stability. The cumulative impacts of these industries on the wider requirements for good health and wellbeing are extremely concerning.
At a time when the dangers of climate change are becoming readily apparent through record-breaking heat waves, droughts, floods, forest fires and cyclones and increasing food and water security concerns, accelerating new and expanding existing gas developments is counterproductive to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Doctors for the Environment Australia urge the Australian government to commit to a national energy plan that prioritises the urgency of climate change. Accordingly DEA urges a ban on new gas and oil developments, and heavy regulation of existing gas developments while vigorously promoting a coordinated transition to renewable energy.