Fracking in 2023? Our children’s health must come first.

Two children walking away from camera along a trail.

Dr Louise Woodward, Paediatrician, Northern Territory

Fracking makes our kids sick. It pollutes the air we breathe, the food we grow and the water we need to survive. It’s also driving harmful climate change.

“First, do no harm” is a defining principle in medicine. A simple phrase to make doctors stop and think, “does this treatment, with all its potential benefits, outweigh the risk of harm to the patient?”

When the harm has the potential to be irreversible or catastrophic, caution must be taken to save lives.

As a Paediatrician, I was dumbfounded by the Government’s decision to lift the moratorium on fracking in the NT. A decision made five years ago is having very real implications today. Now, full-scale fracking in the Beetaloo Basin has been given clearance.

Fracking, unconventional fossil gas extraction, poses a genuine threat to the health and wellbeing of nearby communities. Research from the past few decades shows us that air and water pollution related to gas extraction is linked to lung disease, heart disease, childhood cancers, neurological disease, and pregnancy complications including low birth weight, congenital abnormalities, and increased infant mortality.

Children in NT remote communities already suffer from the highest rates of poverty-related illnesses in our country. What could possibly justify the NT Government putting our children’s health further at risk with this polluting project? Politicians would do well to be guided by the principle to do no harm.

Given the scale of the Beetaloo Basin project, the population health risks need to be carefully considered. If air, soil, and water sources are irreversibly contaminated, the health of current and future generations will suffer.

Fracking increases Australia’s green-house gas emissions and drives climate change – seriously threatening the viability and quality of life in the Top End.

The climate crisis is upon us. It is not a future event to be faced by our descendants, it is here now. It is particularly evident where I live in Darwin, the most northern capital in Australia. There are more unbearably hot days every year and the build-up season seems to last forever. Extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in Australia than all extreme weather events combined and new projections say Darwin risks being uninhabitable within 70 years because of dangerously hot temperatures.

In the NT, kids wilt on the sports fields at 10:00am. If the air-con breaks, it’s an emergency. But many Territorians don’t have air-con or money to pay for power. What will happen to those who don’t have shelter from the heat? Make no mistake, we are on the frontline of climate change and our health will suffer if we don’t act now to curb emissions.

Responding to the United Nations (UN) global IPCC climate report last year, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said that “we are on a fast track to climate disaster.” This year he called on governments to “end licensing or funding of new oil and gas”. Governments who approve the expansion of fossil fuel projects are making these decisions despite the clear evidence of harm put before them. Our children have the right to ask: why are they risking our future?

In the noisy debate about Australia’s climate change strategy, the central question must be: what impact will this project have on the health and wellbeing of our region, our planet, and our future?

The Beetaloo Basin expansion fails to “do no harm’’. Where there is a risk of irreversible or serious harm – we must reconsider the approach and find a safer, cleaner path. We need to demand stronger policies that put the health of people before profits. That is the only way to secure a healthier future for us all.


PHAA National and the PHAA NT Branch stand in full support of Dr Louise Woodward and her NT colleagues as they advocate against expansion of the fossil fuel industry and the development of the fossil gas and petrochemical facility on Darwin Harbour.

Any health and/or public health professionals can support the NT Paediatricians by signing onto this open letter to the Prime Minister. Or, if you are based in Canberra, come and attend the Climate and Health Day of Action at Parliament House on Tuesday 8 August 2023.



Image: Josue Michel/Unsplash

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