In 2013, Walter Tsou, a Philadelphia doctor, began to worry about the impact drilling has on the health of people near natural gas wells. He authored a resolution for the Pennsylvania Medical Society—which represents about a quarter of the state’s doctors—calling for a moratorium on new hydraulic fracturing operations. It didn’t go over very well.
“At that time, there was testimony from physicians talking about the economic benefits to their communities and that it got several of their patients health insurance for the first time,” Tsou says. “People said, ‘You know, they built a new wing to my hospital now, and I really can’t say anything bad about gas drilling. And it’s too early for us to say anything because it’s just started in our communities.'”
The medical society declined his resolution. But this fall, the group reversed course: Now the fracking moratorium is the society’s official position.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf opposes a moratorium, as does the oil and gas industry. The industry warns a moratorium would harm the state’s economy and points out that increasing natural gas leads to less air pollution from coal.
“Through the safe development and use of clean-burning American natural gas, we continue to see significant improvement in our nation’s air quality as well as overall public health,” Marcellus Shale Coalition spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright said in a statement.
Currently, 54,000 people work in fracking and related industries, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
Fracking can contribute to ambient air pollution through emissions at wells and the extensive truck traffic needed to bring materials and equipment to well pads. And for years, people near well pads have complained about health impacts. Tsou is a member with the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. (The group has received funding from the Heinz Endowments, which also helps fund the Allegheny Front.) He says the best thing for the state would be to put a ‘pause’ on new drilling.
“We have to really rethink carefully whether this is the right thing to do,” he says.
The medical society is also calling on the state to fund a registry on shale-related health complaints, as well as more research.
Improving public health surveillance on this issue is crucial, says Ralph Schmeltz, a retired endocrinologist from Pittsburgh and past president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Schmeltz says when the drilling boom first came to the state, there just wasn’t that much research on how it could impact health.
“If you take a look at the amount of literature that had been published, back in 2009, there was hardly any,” Schmeltz says. And we could find very little which related to the health effects of fracking. In the last seven or eight years, there’s been an explosion of research in the area.”
Recent National Institutes of Health-funded studies show increased rates of hospitalization, asthma, premature birth and headaches near fracking sites. But Schmeltz has a word of caution about those studies.
“Those symptoms are very common symptoms. Asthma is very common, exacerbations of asthma are common, headaches are common, migraine headaches are common.”
In other words, just because there’s a correlation between fracking and health symptoms doesn’t mean fracking is the cause. Schmeltz says more studies are needed to help iron out this question. That’s where a health registry would help.
The idea was first floated five years ago by former Governor Tom Corbett’s administration, but the state legislature chose not to fund it. Since then, the legislature changed course—slightly—giving $100,000 to the Department of Health for a stripped-down version of the registry in 2015.
Since that time, Department of Health officials say they have received over 100 complaints from Pennsylvanians who said fracking nearby was making them sick. These include reports of rashes, nosebleeds and anxiety.
Under the Corbett administration, state public health workers were encouraged not to engage people with fracking-related health complaints. As reported by StateImpact Pennsylvania, they were sent a list of buzzwords—like “fracking” or “Marcellus Shale.” If they heard those words, they were told to send the complaint up the chain of command.
That’s not the case anymore, says Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Physician General. “There’s no forbidden words, there’s no forbidden complaints. We publish the data on the website, so we’re really trying to be very open about this,” Levine says.
While the registry is picking up more shale-related health complaints, Levine says those reports aren’t enough to put a ‘pause’ on the fracking industry.
“The data is not there in our opinion to call for any type of moratorium,” Levine says. “If there were consistent studies with compelling data that showed a clear and present danger, then we would certainly bring that to the administration’s attention and consider that.”
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s call for a moratorium will stay on the books, and Walter Tsou says he hopes the state government will take notice.