Pennsylvania records shed light on shale-related health concerns




The Pennsylvania Department of Health kept a log of 86 reports of health complaints related to natural gas development between 2011 and 2015 that reveals both the array of concerns reported by residents and doctors and the limits of the agency’s efforts to investigate potential health effects that may be associated with the industry.

The log was released by the health department to the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch in response to an open records request. The group, which advocates a ban on hydraulic fracturing — the injection of fluids and sand necessary to extract gas from shale — plans to publish the documents today.

The records, which span four years and partial terms of two governors between March 2011 and April 2015, don’t prove a connection between drilling activities and illness, but they reflect the range of complaints reported by citizens, physicians, workers and health agencies.

Environmental and public health experts said the log alone is insufficient to evaluate potential health impacts from shale development.

Trevor Penning, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, said, “The question is whether or not there is a relationship between the exposures that they think they have and the symptoms that they are reporting. That is the crux of it, and that is difficult to nail down based on what you’re seeing here.”

In one case, a mother reported that a third of her 13-year-old daughter’s hair had fallen out, and she suspected a gas well near her water well was to blame.

A doctor said his patient suffered chronic hearing damage after a helicopter servicing the gas industry hovered low over her home.

A truck driver said fluid at a well pad “ate through his work boots and caused long-lasting rashes and welts on his feet and legs.”

Common complaints include breathing trouble, chest tightness, nose bleeds, skin irritation, abdominal issues and noise.

Each entry has a section labeled “How Issue Managed” that sometimes indicates a thorough response by the health department and other times shows the complaint was passed to another person or agency without a final account of how it was addressed.

Department of Health spokesman Wes Culp said the department is “committed to thoroughly investigating every environmental health complaint the department receives.” It is reviewing its protocols for addressing potential environmental public health issues, he said.

The department now counts a total of 87 drilling-related health complaints since it began keeping the log, but the agency has not identified any health impacts of shale drilling from the data that have been reported to the department, he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has said he wants to institute a health registry to track the well-being of those who live near drilling sites, and proposed $100,000 in his budget to do so.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, which ended in January, was criticized for ignoring or minimizing public health concerns related to Marcellus development. His health department instituted changes to improve the way it received and responded to shale gas-related health complaints in 2014 after StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public radio energy reporting project, reported that two retired health department workers said the department under Mr. Corbett exercised an unusual level of control over who could respond to shale gas complaint calls and limited who could speak publicly about any potential health effects of natural gas development.

Bernard Goldstein, a former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said he was struck by the marked improvement in the timeliness and depth of the department’s responses reflected in the more recent log entries compared to those during the first few years.

“If you look at those logs, what is notable about them is how often they just defer to someone else,” he said.

Food & Water Watch counted 14 instances when the health department told residents that it does not perform its own air or water sampling but that it could review test results from sampling conducted by the state Department of Environmental Protection or a private environmental consultant.

David Brown, a public health toxicologist and consultant with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said the log demonstrates how difficult it is for any health department to deal with these types of complaints given limited resources and political pressure. But he said the department had more than enough information to mount a more sophisticated response.

“It should have been a tipping point for the agency to say, we have a potentially serious problem here. We ought to go and take a look at it,” he said.

Public health experts agree that more resources would be necessary to begin to meaningfully evaluate any potential health impacts.

“$100,000 is really a drop in the bucket if one wants to do this right,” Mr. Penning said.

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com

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