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Fracking projects in NT risk exposing people to cancer and birth defects, report finds

Gas exploration well at Beetaloo Basin. Paediatricians concerned about a full-scale fracking industry in the basin prompted the research. Photograph: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Fracking projects fast-tracked by the Australian government risk exposing people to cancer, birth defects, asthma, cardiovascular disease and other harms, a new report published on Monday has found.

The report, led by the University of Sydney, was written in response to paediatricians in the Northern Territory who are deeply concerned about a full-scale fracking industry in the Beetaloo Basin. Guardian Australia’s exclusive investigation revealed the proposed Middle Arm industrial development on Darwin harbour would enable the export of gas from the basin, despite the project being labelled a “sustainable development precinct”.

Drawing on evidence from projects overseas, the report synthesises more than 300 recent peer-reviewed scientific papers on the risks posed by oil and gas operations to biodiversity, water and food security, contributions to the climate emergency, potentially harmful chemicals involved, contamination of air and water, as well as wider health risks associated with the disruption of life near oil and gas fields.

Melissa Haswell, lead researcher and professor of environmental wellbeing, said government decisions have not taken the health impacts of gas and oil developments seriously enough. She said recent major studies from the United States have seen the evidence for health harms grow “substantially stronger”.

Some of the most damning evidence includes increased instances of heart failure, asthma hospitalisations, a blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia and birth defects in communities living near gas and oil exploration sites, Haswell said.

“The research has become so elegant, they can very clearly show that the differences that they see with people’s exposure to the industry didn’t happen until the industry came in. So we know the egg came before the chicken.”

The evidence includes research that shows people living downstream or downwind from the projects experienced health harms, while those in communities upwind or upstream did not, Haswell said.

Australia already has a coal seam gas industry, Haswell said, but shale gas mining in the Beetaloo Basin, which is “knocking on our door”, involves drilling three to four kilometres down to where the shale was deposited up to 400m years ago.

“So when they drill and bring up the water, that water contains a whole array of chemicals that have activities that we know if someone’s exposed to them, then there is an increased risk of … illnesses.”

Prof Jennifer McKay, an expert in corporate social responsibility and environmental law from the University of South Australia, said the report contains information that is “long overdue to be put into the public domain”.

“The debate has always been skewed by the wrong factors,” McKay said. “It’s great to have medical scientists producing information that is relevant to public decision making and getting that elevated in the decision makers’ minds but also importantly, in the minds of the community who haven’t been seeing often the full arguments.”

Dr John Van Der Kallen, national chair of Doctors for the Environment, said while there have been some Australian studies examining the health impacts of gas developments, they have not been as extensive as those which have come from the US, where there are denser populations around the gas wells.

The report includes research from large population studies, Van Der Kallen said. “These are massive studies that are able to quantify the health impacts.”

“Most concerning is the effects on pregnant women, on unborn children, then infants and then children, because many of these chemicals will then accumulate in a small human’s body and have impacts for decades,” he said.

“So those impacts we are yet to see.”

In August more than 2,000 doctors, GPs and health professionals signed a letter to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, demanding the government reconsider subsidising the Middle Arm project and “intervene to prevent gas fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, acknowledging that the emissions cannot be fully offset”.


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