A truck with the natural gas industry, one of thousands that pass through the area daily, drives through the countryside to a hydraulic fracturing site on January 18, 2012 in Springville, Pennsylvania.
The nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project offers screening, advice and referrals for people who believe their health has been damaged by living near gas-drilling sites.
Since opening in mid-February has been taking inquiries from local people who have symptoms including nosebleeds, headaches, skin rashes, fatigue, and vision problems.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” managing director John Suggs told Breaking Energy. Clients typically live close to pits containing waste water from drilling and fracking, near gas compressor stations, or landfills where drilling waste may have been dumped.
“There are all sorts of ways in which people are exposed,” he said.
Critics of the shale-gas boom in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, citing numerous individual reports, say air and water are being contaminated with toxic chemicals used in the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” that, together with horizontal drilling, has recently enabled energy companies to access vast quantities of shale gas.
Focusing On The Data Amid Controversy
Drillers say there has never been a proven case of water contamination from fracking. A University of Texas study published in February concluded there was no direct connection between fracking and groundwater contamination.
While the Environmental Protection Agency continues its national study on fracking and water quality, the new center is drawing no conclusions about any causal link between its clients’ symptoms and fracking chemicals. It strenuously avoids any suggestion that it’s an anti-drilling advocate because that would taint its public-health mission.
Rather than seeking to identify any substances that may cause its clients’ symptoms, the center is focused on providing information and support to local people, said Suggs.
“The primary thing is to break the pathways of exposure,” he said. “It doesn’t work if our primary concern is trying to find the silver bullet.”
It’s likely to be years before epidemiological studies determine whether public health is threatened by fracking, Suggs said, but there are health problems now that need to be dealt with.
“The fact is that people are sick today,” he said. “We are not doing the detective work now.”
An Unknown Quantity
The new center, in McMurray, Washington County, does not treat clients but offers an examination by a nurse practitioner, advice on what to do if they believe they have been exposed to toxic chemicals, and referrals to doctors for treatment, said Dr. David Brown, a public health toxicologist who advises the organization.
Some clients come to the center after seeing a doctor who has been unfamiliar with toxic exposure. “Most physicians never see toxic exposure in their patients,” Dr Brown said.
Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said the gas industry is “absolutely committed” to ensuring that air, water and public health are protected.
“There is no higher priority, and to the extent this initiative can advance objective, fact-based research, we welcome it,” she said in a statement.
The new center has been funded by the Heinz Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Claneil Foundation, and gets advice from Yale School of Medicine.
Editors Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified the Claneil Foundation as the Cornell Foundation.