With all the oil and gas development happening in the region, people are wondering how it is affecting their health. A number of studies have linked fracking, and the pipelines and compressor stations that come with the well pads, to health problems for the people living nearby.One place people can turn to for help is the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. Since 2011, the organization has been conducting health screenings, collecting data, and trying to help people protect themselves and their families from industry pollution. They even have a Family Nurse Practitioner who makes house calls. For our series Hazardous to Your Health, Kara Holsopple spoke with the Environmental Health Project’s director, Raina Rippel.
Kara Holsopple: What kinds of stories do you hear anecdotally?
Raina Rippel: There are a lot of air emissions that happen on a regular basis. So we hear a lot from people saying, I’m getting a really intense exposure. These often seem to happen in off hours so there’s not a lot of regulatory action that can necessarily take place if something like that happens in the middle of the night. And with these acute exposures, they get these short-term symptoms like nasal irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, asthma exacerbation. We don’t know yet how much of this is going to be a long term health effect. I mean one of the things you have to understand about this issue is that a lot of people had certain respiratory conditions to begin with because there is a long history of coal mining exposures in this area — bad air pollution that’s coming from these various infrastructures that we already had in place. That said, a lot of the people that we talk to say, if I had these symptoms, they were never this bad before. The other thing I would just add to that is that across the board, stress anxiety, sleep disruption — those kind of things are ubiquitous with this industry. One of our top concerns is the aldehydes as well as the particle pollution. You’re talking about a lot of diesel-type particles, pollution that we think could serve as a carrier for some of the toxic chemicals that might be associated with the actual fracking-type operations. These particles getting into people’s blood streams raises a lot of concerns for us. These are the type of things we think might be causing the nose irritation, the eye irritation — people’s sensitive membranes.
KH: So what kinds of data are you collecting and publishing or putting out to the public?
RR: We’ve been working on a very citizen science perspective to get data in the hands of community members and impacted residents. We’re trying to match up our health data in as confidential a fashion as possible with some of our air monitoring data, and figure out ways to get these pictures of the community wide impacts online and in front of policymakers. Also we’re trying to educate healthcare providers to say, listen this is what your health care population and your patients are really being exposed to. We’ve collected over 600 data sets on air. We’ve got close to 400 health assessments to date.
KH: How many people in western Pennsylvania have health issues related to fracking? Is there any way to know?
RR: That’s a really hard number to count, and I think some of that has to do with the reluctance on the part of the community to acknowledge that this is a problem. There are definitely financial aspects to this which make people feel very engaged with the industry, especially in certain communities. There are a number of people who, we believe, are probably too sick or just kind of frozen by anxiety to come to us and receive our resources. And I’ve heard, anecdotally, of certain people who say, I chose to lease, I know I have health problems, but I’m not going to connect the dots because I’m making money. So I think that number is going to be elusive.
KH: I know you’re advocating for a national fracking health risk registry. What is that and how could that help?
RR: Well at the very least we think that people should be counted. And I think for policymakers to understand the level of impacts, we would need people to stand up and be counted. Beyond that, researchers need access to people who’ve been exposed, and we don’t want them to disappear into the health care system without having the ability to go back and say, I once upon a time was in this area where the fracking happened, I had this history of exposure. We could then, years down the line, with the assurance that this list is kept up, be in touch with them about the research about the possible longer term health effects. But if that population is never captured, it’s reminiscent of asbestos and mesothelioma because you’re going to have health impacts down the line, and people are going to need to understand where those health impacts came from. It’s not an answer. It’s not going to stop those health impacts from happening. But it puts more powerful tools in the hands of the affected individuals to say they can at least understand where they’re at.
KH: What can people who live near fracking activity do to protect themselves or, if they need to get treatment, what kinds of tools do they have?
RR: We recommend people understand what their health scenario looks like. You can do certain baseline testing and lab analysis that will tell you, for instance, my liver is functioning at this level, and and I’m in decent health. You can really get a pretty clear picture of your health, ideally, before the operations start happening. That will give you a baseline to go back to and say, now my system is compromised – and that’s not protecting anybody’s health – but at least it gives them a clear picture on what has happened. Better scenario, certainly, is that they cut off the pathway of exposure, and that is the public health mantra. That means when the pollution is in the air, don’t breathe the air. How do you not breathe the air? You can close your windows, you can run in-home air filters. You actually leave during the time periods when the air is particularly bad. That’s not available to a lot of people. So these are the hard choices that people have to make. And they’re not necessarily good choices to have, but they may be the best choices in the face of political inaction and regulatory inaction.
KH: With what you’ve seen and the work that you’re doing now, what’s the action you’d most like to see taken in terms of health and conventional gas development?
RR: Quite honestly, I don’t think we should be going full force without knowing what we’re exposing people to. Right now we’re conducting a vast public health experiment without the knowledge we need to know that it’s safe. And when we started trying to parse the numbers out and say how close is too close, and especially related to vulnerable populations like children the elderly, well they’re everywhere. And fracking seems to be everywhere, too, in certain communities. So there is no magic number. There is no safe distance that says, if you do this setback we seem to be leaving a safe scenario for all. I think that at the very least, it could be time to take a time out and say, hang on — let’s understand this before we continue forward in this path. And if there’s not going to be a pause button, then at the very least you need to have a robust public health infrastructure; you need to have a robust regulatory agency climate. We have the opposite. We have a Department of Environmental Protection that’s had their budget slashed dramatically. We have a Department of Health that is facing consolidation of local public health departments in a system that was crippled to begin with. So we don’t have the tools or the resources we need from a state regulatory agency perspective to protect our health. And so the question then comes, are we are we able to do this safely? I think the answer is no.