The dose makes the poison

The safety of chemicals used in hydraulic fraccing is an issue that comes up over and over in the CSG controversy – activists claim that the chemicals are carcinogenic, while the mining companies insist they are perfectly benign. Well, it looks like mining companies have kicked it up a notch …

In the latest and greatest contribution to the safety debate, the CEO of  Halliburton recently ordered an employee to drink fraccing fluid in front of the media. Cute trick, but the example would have been slightly more convincing if the CEO had drunk the fluid himself, instead of ordering a subordinate. [Note that Haliburton also released a statement warning that the fluid should not be considered edible, in case you had any ideas!]

So what does this rather silly example show? Does it mean that the chemicals are safe? No, it’s meaningless to say a particular chemical is ‘safe’. As with anything, the dose makes the poison. We’re all familiar with this principle – two panadol will cure a headache, 50 will kill you. For some reason, there seems to be a reluctance to apply the same logic to industrial processes.

Anti-CSG activists are keen to describe the effects of fraccing chemicals at toxic exposure levels, using information taken straight from the material safety data sheet. Mining companies are no better, preferring to point out that the same chemicals are also found in vinegar, toothpaste and ice-cream. Neither side is doing the community any favours.

I say, stop treating the community like idiots. Be clear. State that the chemicals can be lethal at high enough doses, but extremely low doses are used. Highlight that the government has set guidelines for this very purpose and that the guidelines have been followed. Use my panadol analogy if you like, I won’t charge for it.

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