TOXIC gases leaking up through coal seam gas fields could be having an effect on human health, doctors and anti-pollution groups say.
The revelation that methane, carbon dioxide and other compounds are being detected at high levels several kilometres from the Tara gas wells on Queensland's Western Downs has prompted calls for further health studies.
No known connection exists between coal seam gas drilling and the impact on human health but people living near the drilling sites at Tara have reported persistent rashes, nausea, headaches and nose bleeds.
''While the cause of these symptoms has not yet been determined, they show many similarities to symptoms experienced by communities living in gas fields overseas,'' said Dr Helen Redmond, a physician representing the NSW branch of the group Doctors for the Environment. ''Hydrocarbon exposure cannot be ruled out as a cause without much more comprehensive investigation.''
With drilling developments planned for western Sydney and other parts of the state, NSW Health has requested to be part of the government's coal seam gas working group.
''NSW Health is aware of concerns about human health effects,'' a spokeswoman for the department said. ''Australian studies currently planned or under way will assess exposure types, doses and pathways. These can then be used to assess potential human health effects.''
She said it had not initiated any studies into possible health effects of exposure to air or water contamination resulting from gas drilling.
''NSW Health is not aware of public health effects that have been caused or exacerbated by coal seam gas drilling in Australia at the present time but there is insufficient information at this time to be completely satisfied that there is no potential for public health effects caused or exacerbated by coal seam gas drilling,'' she said.
In Sydney AGL wants clusters of six wells each at 11 sites between Campbelltown and Liverpool, many of them within 400 metres of suburban streets in Currans Hill, Varroville, Kearns, Eschol Park and Denham Court. Its proposal is being put to the state's Planning Assessment Commission.
The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, said he supported the coal seam gas industry but would examine the report of gas leaks, along with Queensland's Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg.
''I'm not going to tolerate any activities in any industry that affects people in terms of the environment where they live,'' Mr Newman told ABC Radio.
The high methane and CO2 levels detected by Southern Cross University researchers in the Tara gas field are highly unlikely to have caused any human health impact on their own.
''Methane and carbon dioxide are being used here as tracers, so that their presence indicates the likely presence of other gases from within coal seams,'' said Dr Isaac Santos, a biogeochemist at the university, who worked on the independent study.
''There are many things we don't know here but we do know that the results show widespread elevated levels, and it really highlights the need for baseline studies so we can determine whether this is due to the coal seam gas operations or not.''
The Southern Cross team made no attempt to link the elevated gas emissions to health effects but the concern of Doctors for the Environment and other groups such as the National Toxics Network is that compounds brought up by the drilling process could be making people sick.
The story Doctors raise alarm over toxic coal seam gas leaks first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.