Health
11:00 am
Wed November 23, 2011

The Health Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing

In the past few years, protesters who have opposed Marcellus Shale activities have focused on the detrimental effects that they believe drilling for natural gas could have on the water, and air, and ultimately everyone's health.

But those concerns have been mostly anecdotal, leaning on stories that people have told about the effects that the gas drilling process has had on their neighbors, livestock, pets, and family members — tales that without scientific evidence, that gas drilling companies readily refute.

Last week the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health held their second annual conference on the Health Effects of Shale Gas Extraction, expanding the dialog on the clinical effects that hydraulic fracturing has on residents and, they hope, laying the groundwork for evidence-based diagnoses.

Bernard Goldstein is a professor of environmental and occupational health at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

"We know not anywhere as much as we need to know and unfortunately, we are not on a pathway to find out what we need to do. The federal government has invested money, but it's on whether groundwater is affected, not health effects, not community issues, at least not for at least a few years," he said.

He says that there are plans for publicly funded studies on the health impacts of drilling, but those won't be launched for a few more years.

In the meantime, people are living in communities and self-diagnosing with diseases that they believe have been caused by hydraulic fracturing.

Preliminary studies are being done

Earlier this year, Eli Avila, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Public Health, testified before the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission about the need for creating a health registry that would track whether illnesses are related to drilling. This would refute or verify a growing number of concerns or complaints.

He said that the state's Department of Epidemiology receives inquiries and complaints from citizens, health care providers, public officials, and communities concerned about the health effects caused by environmental exposures.

If you drive around Washington County's rolling hills and scattered farmhouses, you'll see numerous gas wells and a seemingly endless parade of trucks on the narrow roads.

Debbie Peeples has lived her whole life in the tiny West Virginia community of Ray. The town of about a dozen homes lies downhill from several well pads in a part of the state that is booming with drilling activity. She believes their well water has been contaminated and the health of her family has declined. She blames it on drilling.

Peeples has not been as healthy as she would like recently, and she blames that on the drilling near her home as well. She said that others in her small town are reporting similar symptoms.

Medical facilities in the area that normally only treat industrial workers who are directly exposed to chemicals used in fracking are starting to ramp up their offerings to begin treating residents who are starting to report similar symptoms.

However, without the research to back up their claims, it is hard to know what is to blame for their illnesses.