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Gas drilling research highlights risk to animals, but more thorough work needed

Gas drilling is becoming increasingly controversial in both the US and Australia. AAP

A US study released this week linking animal health problems with gas drilling provides further argument for more stringent environmental monitoring of the effects of the practice, but should be viewed cautiously, say Australian scientists.

The study was carried out by Cornell University Professor of Pharmacology Robert Oswald and private practice veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and published in the journal New Solutions. The researchers carried out 24 interviews in six US states with animal owners affected by shale gas drilling. The paper also reported human effects.

The report says results “strongly implicate(s) exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife”.

In Australia, the issue of coal seam gas drilling, which differs from shale gas drilling, is increasingly controversial.

Australian experts have supported Oswald and Bamberger’s calls for full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans. But they point out the study relies on anecdotal evidence and has some gaps in methodology.

Professor Ian Rae, expert on chemicals in the environment and Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is also an advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme on chemicals in the environment.

The article makes a case for ensuring that cattle and other animals do not drink the water recovered from shale or other gas operations. It’s self-evident that such water is likely to be contaminated with natural and/or industrial chemicals, so a warning of this sort is appropriate.

The authors say that their study is not an epidemiological analysis’ nor a “study of health impacts” but does have value in presenting the risks and suggesting further study and in suggesting changes to present practices in the industry. It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep (no pun intended!) analysis of the data gathered to support its case.

The data in Table 2 are incomplete in that no dates or places are provided, and no references to other commentary on the events it reports, so it’s hard to assess the weight of the evidence. Surely there were reports to or by regulatory agencies. It could be that this is old evidence and that note has been taken of the hazards and appropriate regulations put in place to mitigate them. We just don’t know.

Contributions to the journal are said to be refereed, but the refereeing process evidently was not very stringent. For example, better refereeing would have forced the authors to provide the details I identified above as missing from their compilation. As well, it might also have curtailed some of the less-well supported statements and asked for more recent references to the scientific basis for expressions of concern that material dated to the 1960s and 1970s.

Bamberger appears to be a veterinarian in private practice in Ithaca, New York, while Oswald is a pharmacology professor at nearby Cornell University. As far as I can see, neither has a track record of investigation in environmental studies. This does not mean they are wrong to sound a note of concern, but it does mean that they cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.

New Solutions is not a mainstream journal of the sort where high standards of refereeing would apply. It is, as the masthead proclaims, “a journal of environmental and occupational health policy’, and claims to be ‘the only journal that attempts to both define the issues and offer perspectives”. This is an overstatement since a number of other journals do this. I have not had time to read the articles in recent issues of the journal, but the titles show that they are advocacy pieces dealing with issues that are matters of concern, and for that reason are also extensively covered by other journals.

In summary, the message can be heard in Australia that care needs to be taken in handling the water recovered during shale gas operations. We did not need an article like this to tell us.“

Dr Heather Chapman, environmental toxicologist with expertise in toxicology and Associate Professor at the Smart Water Research Centre, Griffith University.

This work is based on interviews and thus provides anecdotal evidence, rather than a direct cause and effect relationship, for adverse health impacts from gas drilling. It is an interesting study and highlights some of the knowledge that is required. However, there are some important differences between gas drilling in the US and here which need to be taken into consideration when extrapolating from this research.

Firstly, the type of gas drilling (shale gas) that is reported in this paper is horizontal and therefore could be closer to surface waters, and potentially increasing the exposure to humans and livestock. Coal seam gas drilling that takes place in Australia tends to be much deeper.

Secondly, the authors point to the reported confidentiality surrounding the chemicals used in fracking in the US. In Australia there is, on the whole, full disclosure about the chemicals used in the fracking process.

Lastly, the paper by Bamberger and Oswald reports a lack of pre-drilling data in the US study – i.e. information about the quality of the water before drilling began. My understanding is that such baseline data is being collected here.

Dr Gavin Mudd, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Engineering at Monash University, Melbourne

This research provides strong food for thought and the need for comprehensive environmental monitoring - without this, there can be no definitive answers to the serious scientific and community issues which continue to be raised concerning coal seam gas and shale gas developments.

The paper focuses on health impacts that are rather anecdotal - since industry and government data is sufficiently lacking. But it provides more solid anecdotal evidence than usual and links this well to good theory and actual risks of chemicals.”

Emeritus Professor Michael Moore, Chair of Water Quality Research Australia and former director of the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology

Almost everything in this study relates to a breakdown in process, either in the management of wells or of the wastewater stream. What we are talking about here is the inappropriate exposure of animals to wastewater with known toxic components and so it is hardly surprising that animals are negatively affected as a result.

These waste compounds must be managed carefully in a way that is not at all dissimilar to the way conventional mining wastewater is subject to tight controls. The realistic message that should be taken from this study is that legislation to allow gas drilling must have sufficient safeguards in place to ensure the safe management of all waste.

Source: Australian Media Science Centre. The AusMSC is a partner of The Conversation.

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