The rapid expansion of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland’s Darling Downs has been accompanied by a startling rise in hospital admissions, according to report published in International Journal of Environmental Studies, pointing to inadequate environmental monitoring and regulatory failure by Queensland government agencies.

The paper, by Dr Geralyn McCarron, found that acute hospital admissions for circulatory and respiratory diseases increased by up to 142% between 2007 and 2014. During the same period, pollutants reported by the CSG industry and known to cause cardiopulmonary illnesses rose by up to 6000%.

“Acute circulatory admissions increased 133% and acute respiratory admissions increased 142%,” Dr McCarron says in the report. “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).”

Dr McCarron found that the unchecked expansion of non-conventional gas companies into what was previously an agrarian area has led to the generation of extra emissions attributable to a single industry.

“Despite appeals from health professionals to improve oversight, state and federal regulatory bodies have failed to act,” she says. The paper has been welcomed by anti CSG groups, while government departments and the gas industry have remained silent.

In 2013 the Australian Medical Association warned that the health impacts of CSG had not been adequately researched, and effective regulations that protect public health were not in place.

The same year, Queensland Health released a limited investigation into health complaints of Darling Downs residents. The report was unable to link reported health effects exposure to CSG pollutants. However, it acknowledged that there was “some evidence that might associate some of the residents’ symptoms to exposure to airborne contaminants arising from CSG activities.”

Queensland Health recommended 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.

“Despite this, DEHP determined that they found no cause to expand monitoring, thereby blocking Queensland Health’s recommendation that overall gasfield emissions and the exposure of the community to those emissions be monitored. The rejection by the regulator of these recommendations is of serious concern,” Dr McCarron found in her paper.

The CSG industry self-reports pollution figures to the Commonwealth Department of the Environment’s National Pollution Inventory but Dr MacCarron says its plausible that emissions have been substantially underestimated.

The full range of factors underlying the escalating hospitalisation of Darling Downs’ residents for acute respiratory and circulatory conditions is unknown, but the statistics are significant.

Vicki Perrin of Lock the Gate Alliance concurred, saying that the research “must prompt the QLD Government to undertake 24hr real-time air quality monitoring in and around gasfields. The people living there deserve open and transparent information.”

She called on gas companies to be required to report, not just to estimate, all their harmful emissions.

“The level of Government ineptitude exposed here is staggering. The Queensland Environment and Heritage Protection Department didn’t have the data yet ignored Queensland Health’s recommendation.”

Queensland Health and the DEHP’s Department of Environment and Science declined to comment. The gas industry peak body APPEA did not respond.

Eve Sinton produces Fossil Fuel Bulletin and is a media coordinator for Knitting Nannas Against Gas. She did not receive payment for this article.

Peter Fray

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