First-ever shale health office opens

Nonprofit program to assess effects of rampant gas development

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A new, first-of-its-kind medical program to assess both the individual and public health impacts of widespread Marcellus Shale gas development has begun in Washington County.

The nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project opened an office in McMurray last week in response to what it termed growing local and medical concerns over the potential health effects from hazardous chemical and pollutant releases associated with the rapid growth of shale gas development.

The nonprofit health project, funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Claneil Foundation, opened its office last week on Washington Road in McMurray.

The office will help area residents recognize and understand exposure pathways in the air and water, and schedule medical exams and evaluations to diagnose health problems that may result from them, said Raina Rippel, project director. An on-site Washington County nurse practitioner is available by appointment for home visits, exams and consultations, and already has conducted several patient assessments.

"I've been out there in the communities, listening to residents. We know there are public health impacts, but there is uncertainty," Ms. Rippel said. "Our goal is to help individuals -- help them navigate the health care systems, help them get the answers to the health care questions they have and put them in contact with the resources they need, whether that's water testing or filtration or medical services."

Washington County has about 700 Marcellus Shale gas wells -- more than any other county in southwestern Pennsylvania -- and at least a dozen compressor stations, which pump natural gas through pipelines. Health impacts can occur from spills that contaminate streams or water sources, or air pollution from drill rigs, holding tanks, compressor stations and diesel truck traffic, Ms. Rippel said.

Those impacts can include stomachaches and headaches, nosebleeds and cognitive difficulties, as well as stress-related disorders, said Dr. Leslie Walleigh, a project consultant and a physician specializing in occupational and environmental medicine.

"We would expect, based on predictable exposures, that some individuals will experience respiratory symptoms, with worsening of underlying asthma and other lung diseases, and possibly the new onset of asthma," Dr. Walleigh said. "We also expect to see conditions related to the emotional and psychological stress resulting from the personal, family and community life disruption stemming from the shale gas activities."

She urged Washington County residents who are worried about their health because of exposure to shale gas development activities to stop at the program's office or call for an appointment. The program plans to offer all services free of charge to area residents, she said.

In addition to providing individual medical care, the program is the first in the nation to attempt to assess the health impacts from shale gas drilling in any comprehensive and methodical way, said David Brown, a public health toxicologist in Connecticut and director of Public Health Toxicology for Environment and Human Health Inc., which helped design the program.

"We're going into the communities to address the individual health issues and then research what to do to improve public health," Mr. Brown said. "No one else is looking carefully and comprehensively at what's happening to people around these operations, where the situations and exposures are so variable."

He said the program has begun interviewing local physicians to determine if they are seeing an increase in certain illnesses that might be related to shale gas development.

Kathryn Klaber, Marcellus Shale Coalition president, said the industry supports a thorough, unbiased health assessment in wellfield areas.

"We live, work and raise our families in these communities, and are absolutely committed to ensuring that our air, water and public health are protected," Ms. Klaber said. "There is no higher priority, and to the extent this initiative can advance objective, fact-based research, we welcome it."

Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician who has treated children from Washington County, said the health risks for those living near gas developments hasn't been studied or quantified in a way to help local doctors treat their patients.

"It's difficult for those in the medical community to know what we should be on the lookout for, and how to address problems that we might see," Dr. Podgainy said. "I do not want my patients to become 'the canaries in the coal mine.' A proactive approach is to everyone's benefit."

The office is open Tuesday through Friday, with nurse practitioner services available by appointment. The office phone number is 724-260-5504. Additional information is available at the project website is at http://www.environmentalhealthproject.org/.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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