Imagine you’re a parent living near a natural-gas fracking site in Pennsylvania when suddenly your child begins having nose bleeds and skin rashes. The pediatrician suspects some type of exposure from the nearby well, and you’ve heard stories on the news and from neighbors about health issues related to fracking. You decide to call the health department, a trusted source of information. But no one returns your calls and your questions remain unanswered.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health is charged with ensuring and protecting the health of all state residents. It fulfills this obligation by partnering with communities to monitor existing and emerging health problems and to establish programs that prevent disease and injury.
Over the years, the health department says, it has adapted its mission to “meet the needs and demands of the dynamic nature of public health” and affirmed its “commitment, dedication and professionalism … to provide top-quality programs and services that benefit the health, safety and well-being of all Pennsylvanians.”
Recent revelations and allegations indicate the health department may not be serving all Pennsylvanians as it claims.
As reported by NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania, two former health department employees say staff were given a list of “buzzwords,” such as “fracking,” “Marcellus Shale” and “drilling,” and instructed not to respond to health complaints containing these words but instead to refer them to the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology. This practice was different from how they handled all other health issues throughout their extensive careers at the department.
Although the state health department initially denied the list existed, it has since acknowledged that it did but said it was intended only as a guide. The Bureau of Epidemiology maintains it is investigating health complaints related to fracking, but, unlike in other states, in Pennsylvania complaints of potential fracking-related health problems are not made public.
In the face of these allegations and the fact that public information is not available about how thoroughly complaints are being investigated by the Bureau of Epidemiology, it is difficult to tell whether the Pennsylvania Department of Health is fulfilling its mission. We depend on the department to put the health of Pennsylvanians’ first and base its practices on science, not politics.
This concern was heightened Tuesday when Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a scorching review of how another state agency, the Department of Environmental Protection, is overseeing the shale gas industry and responding to citizens' complaints that drilling has affected their drinking water.
There is certainly reason to worry about the health impacts of fracking, with mounting evidence of both water and air contamination.
The Post-Gazette revealed Tuesday that the DEP is about to report that oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007. A document released to the newspaper did not detail which companies were involved, what pollutants were found or why the problems occurred.
We do know that methane migration has affected groundwater and that discharge of under-treated waste has affected surface waters. Increased particulate matter and ground-level ozone have affected local triggers for asthma attacks, cardiac problems and the exacerbation of respiratory ailments.
People living in fracking areas have experienced various illnesses, and there is potential for long-term effects. We have a dynamic public health issue growing in our state, but the state health department does not seem to have adapted to meet the health needs of Pennsylvanians.
Since the department has failed to provide a public registry of fracking-related complaints, there is no way to determine whether it is adequately monitoring and investigating fracking’s health effects. Additionally, unlike some other states, the commonwealth has never conducted a health impact assessment to identify the health risks for Pennsylvanians in drilling areas.
In the absence of a public registry of illnesses or considerations of risk, the health department and the shale gas industry can more easily suggest there’s a lack of evidence that fracking can cause health problems. We ask the health department to publicly report complaints of potential fracking-related health problems, status reports and conclusions of complaint investigations, and recommendations made to address illnesses and prevent them in the future.
This seems a reasonable request since information on other public health investigations is posted for the public on the health department’s website. Why should fracking investigations be treated differently?
Furthermore, the health department has neglected to provide educational and public health information on identified risks in fracking areas, such as general ways to avoid air pollution and address water-quality concerns. A review of the department’s website shows no information or links for health information related to fracking, natural gas or the Marcellus Shale. Pennsylvanians are not able to turn to their state health department to make informed decisions or to learn safe practices to reduce health risks related to fracking.
The allegations by the former health department employees and the lack of public evidence that the health department is seriously addressing fracking as a public health issue should matter to all of us, even if we don’t live near natural-gas operations. Might the department be sitting on information about other public health issues? Perhaps to further political agendas?
As health care professionals, we ask our legislators for an independent investigation of the health department. We hope other Pennsylvanians will ask the same of their representatives.
Ruth McDermott-Levy is an assistant professor at Villanova University who specializes in global and public health nursing. Nina M. Kaktins is a registered nurse and adjunct professor at Chatham University. They are writing in a personal capacity on behalf of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (www.envirn.org).