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New state drilling law ignores health, doctors say

| Thursday, April 12, 2012

Public health advocates and doctors on the front lines of Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom are attacking the state's new Marcellus shale law, likening one of its provisions to a gag order and complaining that vital research money into health effects was stripped at the last minute.

Doctors say they don't know what to tell patients who suspect their ailments are related to nearby gas industry activity because of a lack of research on whether the drilling of thousands of new wells -- many near houses and drinking water supplies -- has made some people sick.

Yet when legislative leaders and the governor's office negotiated the most sweeping update of the state's oil and gas law in a quarter century, they stripped $2 million annually that included a statewide health registry to track respiratory problems, skin conditions, stomach ailments and other illnesses potentially related to gas drilling.

Just last week, the Department of Health refused to give The Associated Press copies of its responses to people who complain that drilling has affected their health. That lack of transparency -- justified in the name of protecting private medical information -- means the public has no way of knowing even how many complaints there are or how many are valid.

Studies are urgently needed to determine if any of the drilling has affected human health, said Poune Saberi, a University of Pennsylvania physician and public health expert.

"We don't really have a lot of time," said Saberi, who said she has talked to about 30 people across Pennsylvania over the past 18 months who blame their ailments on gas drilling.

Working out of public view, legislative negotiators also inserted a requirement that doctors sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to proprietary information on chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

Though environmental groups and Shell Oil Co. alike pushed it, doctors and public health advocates say they were not consulted and had no idea it was in the bill.

State officials say the rule, which mirrors decades-old federal regulations, is meant to give doctors explicit access to drilling firms' secret chemical cocktails. But Pennsylvania's leading medical association contends it may have a chilling effect on research and on doctors' ability to diagnose and treat patients exposed to carcinogens and other toxic substances.

"If there's this confidentiality agreement that you need to sign off on, how open are you to share that information, whether directly with the patient, or with the state, or for research?" asked Marilyn J. Heine, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. "There is some ambiguity. The law isn't identifying what the limitations are."

The law, which takes effect on Saturday, includes a new "impact fee" on gas drillers, stronger environmental protections, and online disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, the technique that's allowed drillers to reach previously inaccessible gas deposits deep underground. A challenge to the constitutionality of the disclosure restriction is part of a broader lawsuit filed March 29 against the new law.

For now, all Janet McIntyre knows is that two doctors have raised alarms since tests showed traces of chemicals in her well water. She lives in one of 10 households near Connoquenessing, Butler County, where residents believe nearby drilling has affected their water. State and industry experts say tests have shown the water is fine.

"Their opinion on the whole thing is don't drink the water or use it for anything," she said of the doctors' advice.

McIntyre did not disclose her medical conditions and says she cannot be sure that nearby drilling caused them. But she says her health has been improving since she stopped drinking the well water.

Amelia Pare, a plastic surgeon in McMurray, is among the physicians clamoring for more study.

Pare said she has seen several patients who developed lesions too big for a dermatologist to cut away -- lesions, later found to be benign, that grew back. She suspects those patients, who live in one neighborhood near natural gas compressor stations and open-air chemical ponds that store toxic drilling waste, were exposed to something. But she cannot be sure.

"All I know is people are sick, they're having spots on their face, they're not getting better, and it doesn't seem like anyone around here is equipped to help them."

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