While there have been anecdotal reports of nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, skin lesions, and other health problems among Pennsylvanians living near gas-drilling sites, there hasn't been enough research to develop sound policy. Legislation introduced in Harrisburg would begin to answer questions about the health risks of fracking by promoting transparency and study. Sadly, and predictably, it's stuck in committee.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), provides for basic disclosure and study of the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and the chemicals used in the process. But its reasonable goals face stiff opposition in Harrisburg. The Corbett administration and too many legislators seem to fear inconveniencing the gas industry with taxes or regulation.
The bill would require the state Department of Health to collect, analyze, and circulate health data related to fracking. (Funding for a registry of health complaints, which has been stripped from the bill, should be restored.) It also calls for research comparing the health of those living near drilling operations to that of a control group not exposed to the process, as well as a long-term study on the health effects of fracking.
Drillers would have to disclose the chemicals they use in water pumped into shale formations to extract gas. And the bill would lift a gag order that prevents doctors from sharing information about those chemicals and their effects with other health professionals. State laws governing natural-gas drilling impose the gag to protect drillers' proprietary processes. But public health has to trump trade secrets.
Unfortunately, the public got no help from Commonwealth Court on that question in July. The court failed to clarify physician liabilities under nondisclosure agreements they are forced to sign when they treat patients who may have been harmed by the drilling process.
Some 400 health-care professionals have called for more tracking and disclosure of health complaints related to gas extraction, partly in response to National Public Radio reports that the Health Department discouraged citizens from reporting such problems. While state officials have contested the reports, there is no way to know whether the issue is being properly addressed until information about fracking complaints is made available to experts and citizens. And while the Health Department's website now includes information on how to report fracking-related problems, that will do little good if health professionals can't fully assess cases, share information about them, and look for patterns.