Issue 38 / 5 October 2015

IN the first century, Pliny the Elder advised against purchasing slaves from the asbestos mines because their life expectancies were short, although he also believed this wondrous material offered protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi.
From the 1920s, a growing scientific body of evidence linked asbestos to fatal lung disease, but that didn’t stop private companies and governments from continuing to tout its benefits and promote its use well into the 1970s.
When commercial interests are at play, it’s easy for the risk–benefit debate to become a battle, in which confusion reigns and evidence is either misrepresented or hidden from view.
In recent times, we’ve seen something like that happen in relation to climate change — as vested interests seek to cast doubt on the scientific consensus — but it’s hardly a new phenomenon.
Denial of the harm caused to children’s health in lead industry towns delayed remedial action for years, as Professor Mark Taylor of Macquarie University makes clear.
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. When you’re in the midst of smoke and mirrors, the picture isn’t always so clear.
US authors write in this week’s MJA about the controversial practice of unconventional gas development (UGD), more commonly known as fracking.
The campaign against fracking in this country has brought together an unlikely coalition of left and right, encompassing farmers, environmentalists and at least one right-wing shock jock, concerned that the industry may contaminate ground and surface water, posing substantial environmental and health risks.
Supporters, on the other hand, argue fracking can provide great quantities of cheap energy at little or no risk to the environment.
So, what to believe? 
The MJA authors argue that Australia needs to learn from the American experience where the industry has a much longer history, although they acknowledge the quality of the evidence from the US isn’t what it should be.
Toxic materials have certainly been found in wastewaters in the US, including salts, chlorides, volatile organics, heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, they write.
Self-reported health data also suggest higher rates of respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms among residents of fracking areas.
Studies that might establish a causal link have, however, not been done.
“Unfortunately, in the US, few health impact assessment studies have been conducted before or even during UGD activities, and there have been even fewer well designed epidemiologic studies”, they write.
Given the pressure to expand the industry in this country, and impose it on often reluctant rural communities, such a lack of evidence really isn’t good enough.
If the health disasters of the past have taught us anything, it should be that high-quality, independent research needs to be conducted before large populations are put at risk.
As the MJA authors write, establishing a true picture requires collection of baseline mortality and morbidity data with tracking of any changes over time. Without that kind of data, the decisions made by regulators are on shaky ground and reassurances given to affected communities are really just empty words.
“Policies should be informed by empirical evidence based on actual experience rather than assurance of best practices”, the American authors write.
It’s hard to argue with that. Pliny the Elder might have thought the magical properties of asbestos outweighed the suffering of slaves, but surely we can do better than that.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

4 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Fracking facts

  1. Donald McMillan says:

    This debate is missing input from Petroleum Engineers.  I have designed & operated Fracture Stimulation projects since the mid 1980s.

    The purpose of fracturing reservoir rocks is to accelerate production. The original fracturing technology can be traced back to Col E Roberts who patented the “expoding torpedo” in 1865. This technology used nitroglycerine to fracture reservoir rocks. From 1965 to 1967 various processes were trialled.  In 1947 fracturing rocks using high pressure water was trialled. The advantage of using water is that it is safer and the process can be engineered.  Today Fracture Stimulation is heavily engineered process based on 60 years experience.

    Ms McCredie and many activists groups allude to the fact that the science of fracturing rocks could prove to be wrong. Ms McCredie used  Asbestos experience as an example.  I would like to include “silicone breast implants” as an example. Both these innovations have a history of controversy where warnings from adversaries eventually proved correct. In hindsight why where they not taken more seriously? The probable reason is that every product or process, eg vaccination, has its opponents, which at the time of introduction are difficult to know if they are correct or not.  What halted asbestos and silicone breast implants was the acid test of successful litigation.

    Fracturing reservoir formation technology has been around for over 150 years and using high pressure water over 60 years. In Australia it was first introduced in the 1960s and became routine process from the 1980s.

    After all this time where is the litigation?

  2. Stephen Sonneveld says:

    I do not think as doctors we know anything about climate change or fracking.

    Leave that to the scientists and politicians to squabble over and hopefully make appropriate decisions.

    Maybe the doctors sitting on their high stools commenting need to get off their fracking bums and do some real medicine like seeing patients.


  3. Dr Kevin B. Orr says:

    I worked as a surgical registrar in Britain during the 1950’s. Operating on a women with acute abdominal pain,  I found she had wide-spread mesothelioma confirmed histologically. Looking into this condition and pleural mesothelioma, I found it was well-known that these conditions were linked to asbestos.  That was decades before proper action was taken in Australia..


  4. C Ahrens says:

    this article is spot on. nothing to add

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