‘only’ 27 complaints

September 9, 2013

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The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project sent an alert to parents whose children had played soccer at Summit Elementary School in Butler, Pa., while flaring was underway at a well less than 900 feet away.//Sept. 3 photo from the Facebook page of Penni Patches Pixie Laine.

The complaints seem insignificant. Compiled by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP), they are clues about illness caused by fracking in Washington County near Pittsburgh: 7 cases of skin rash; 4 of eye irritation; 13 of breathing difficulty or coughing; 3 of dizziness, headaches or other neurological complaints.

“Industry headlines the findings: Health ‘Study’ of Whopping 27 People Blames Drilling for Symptoms,” says Michael T. Kelly, Ph.D., a consultant and adviser to the project. “But this is actually just the tip of the iceberg. … This is: ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ ”

“People are clearly suffering,” said David R. Brown, a prominent public health toxicologist and one of the founders of SWPA-EHP. “All we are trying to do is to find out what is going on.”

The Associated Press, in an article that appeared in the Washington Post, drew from a SWPA-EHP PowerPoint presentation at a National Academy of Sciences conference in June to report on the number of illnesses. The article said “the results challenge the industry position that no one suffers but also suggest that the problems may not be as widespread as some critics claim.”

Kelly and Brown say the article failed to explain the significance of the numbers in the context of public health research.  In the case of West Nile virus, for example, public health officials started with only five cases in a hospital. “What we know in public health is it’s not so much the number,” Kelly said, “it’s if you can identify a series of people who are showing symptoms that are indicative, this is a reason for serious concern, this is big, this is important. We are seeing such a case series.”

The SWPA-EHP, which is funded by a Heinz Endowments grant, is less a clinic than a team of health-care professionals trying to provide health and safety information to people living in the shadow of the gas industry. With an office in McMurray in Washington County, the nurse practitioner and others on the team evaluate symptoms that might be linked to unconventional natural gas development, make referrals and offer suggestions for how people can modify their homes or behavior to lessen the potential effects (clean often, reduce outdoor activity, reduce light and noise pollution in the home, install an air filter, don’t track in toxic dust …).  They also educate nurses and doctors about the health effects of living near gas drilling.  Sometimes doctors send information about cases and ask if they are similar to what SWPA-EHP is seeing. Last week, SWPA-EHP issued an alert to parents of students playing soccer in a school athletic field while flaring took place less than 900 feet away.  The staff are detectives in the gas fields.

In response to a newspaper ad and other outreach in the community, SWPA-EHP settled on a carefully screened and selected sample of people who said they were harmed by gas industry activity. The EHP nurse practitioner evaluated 50 cases, identifying which people had exposure and ailments that couldn’t be explained by something else. The people in the sample had to live in Washington County and could not have been harmed while working in the gas industry or as part of an accident at a drilling site or compressor station. They couldn’t have had the condition prior to gas extraction, even if the condition worsened. The nurse also spoke with only one person in the family, so if four members of a family reported symptoms, only one was included in the study. No children were evaluated.

And some people, Brown said, wouldn’t talk to them for fear of retaliation from the gas companies.  If someone’s water had “turned bad” and the gas companies supplied a tank of replacement water, the residents wouldn’t complain for fear of losing the water supply.  “That threat was used effectively against people,” Kelly said.

From these evaluations, the scientists at SWPA-EHP selected the likely instances of harm. In addition, 45 percent of the patients reported vomiting, 38 percent had abdominal pain, 21 percent had nosebleeds. Anxiety or stress was another common complaint.

“I started with the idea that people wouldn’t get sick unless they were exposed to the water,” Brown said. “This showed that wasn’t the case.” Skin rashes were from exposure to contaminated water, but in many cases air was the only pathway for exposure.  Also, he said, the different gas industry processes produced different symptoms. “Drilling the well was different from fracking, which was different from flaring, which was different from the compressor station and processing plant,” Brown said.  “The activity that’s going on is to a degree associated with the kind of effects we see.”

So, what does it all mean? For starters, they said, these symptoms only begin to reveal the long-term story. “Because of the nature of these types of exposures, it could be years between exposure and manifestation of significant symptoms, decades sometimes. … So when you have a group of people showing symptoms in less than a handful of years, this is not trivial stuff,” Kelly said.   

Brown and Kelly also see a failure of the public health system.

“I do think this is one of the most serious health problems I’ve seen in my career … because the medical and public health community is not reacting. It’s sitting on the sidelines,” Brown said. “We know people are sick, and we are not doing anything at all.”

Similar health effects have been documented in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and New York. “We look at our data relative to all of it [and] they all fit together,” he said.

Serious health risks from shale development are showing up, Kelly said, “but the bigger problem is the complete failure of the public health system in the United States to deal with this kind of situation.” The health system handles the flu and other communicable diseases well, “but when it comes to industrial exposures, why is a little nonprofit working in one county with a budget of less than a million bucks, why are we are doing the work that the public health system in Pennsylvania should be doing. We’re doing the work that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] should be doing. The fact that such a critical function is being left to underfunded nonprofits to deal with is incomprehensible.”

They also see a serious flaw in the conversation about energy. The AP reporter said the debate over fracking “neglected a crucial point” and included a quote from a former Obama administration official about lives saved “as a consequence of the fracking revolution.”

Brown said the implication is that a person who complains of a rash can be told, “Well, you don’t have cancer, so stop worrying.”

“Underlying [that] is the idea that we need energy at any cost, and we are going to sacrifice some people, and you sacrifice fewer than with coal,” said Brown, who also teaches ethics. He thinks most people believe, “ ‘I don’t want to heat my house and have anybody’s kids sick.’ The structure of the conversation is flawed.”

With fracking and all fossil fuels, Kelly said,  “the failure to transparently assess consequences and real options, like alternative energy, and make rational decisions that promote vitality for everyone, not just wealth for a small elite, is a catastrophic failure of our civilization, and it’s going to do us in.”

“I think we are looking at another asbestos/cigarette/lead exercise in this country,” Brown said. “It has all the hallmarks.”

— elisabeth hoffman

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