Project Investigates Pennsylvania Health Problems to Determine Links with Natural Gas Fracking

Posted July 2, 2014

MP3 Interview with David Brown, director of Public Health Toxicology for Environmental and Human Health, Inc., conducted by Melinda Tuhus


In what is likely the first such study of its kind in the U.S., a team of scientists and public health professionals has examined a group of residents of southwestern Pennsylvania to determine if the health problems they report are the result of living near the industrial practice of "hydraulic fracturing" or drilling of horizontal wells for natural gas, known as "fracking." That's the process that involves drilling deep underground into tight shale formations, injecting a million or more gallons of water, sand and a list of secret chemicals, to shatter the rock and release the gas.

The formerly bucolic Pennsylvania landscape has been transformed by the construction of well pads, gas flaring towers and the rumbling of hundreds of heavy trucks that service the sites, traveling on local roads and highways. Air and water pollution related to fracking operations has prompted many residents with health problems to seek answers about the possible links of their illness to the natural gas extraction process.

David Brown, director of Public Health Toxicology for Environment and Human Health, Inc., helped coordinate the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Brown, past chief of Environmental Epidemiology and Occupational Health in Connecticut, who discusses the project’s investigation to determine the cause of residents' complaints.

DAVID BROWN: We looked for health effects – potential health effects – in people living in southwest Pennsylvania, but we looked in a fairly traditional way for public health, which is to identify the people who thought they were ill or seemed to be ill, and examined them and their situation, including their housing and things that were near their housing, to try to determine what their health status was, and what potential things might be affecting their health. We knew that gas fracking was going on very near their property and where they were living. So we went to Pennsylvania. It involved a nurse practitioner who examined people, it involved a community involvement people who were able to communicate with the population of people and have them explain what their problems were. We also looked at the scientific information that was available about what the exposures might be that these particular families might be exposed to.

What we found is that were clearly health effects that were occurring in a portion of the people we were talking to, and those health effects involved physical effects like nosebleeds, headaches, increased asthma attacks, skin rashes, and some of what we call cognitive effects – confusion, inability to sleep, high senses of worry and anxiety because they had essentially lost their ability to control their environment around their homes. There was gas drilling going on near their homes and extraction of gas; fumes were getting into their homes and near their homes, and some of them were finding that their water was contaminated and undrinkable. There was a reasonably large number of people involved. Washington county, Pennsylvania, has about 200,000 people, and we think the numbers of those people who are living near gas wells or gas production facilities who are potentially being exposed to emissions from the facilities – either through the air, the water or the soil – there was probably 5 to 15 percent of that population that looked like they could be at risk.

BETWEEN THE LINES: But, David Brown, correlation is not necessarily causation. Are you convinced these maladies are the result of fracking and not something else?

DAVID BROWN: Well, we're pretty convinced it has to do with the gas activity that's going on down there. One of the things we're looking for before we can answer the question you just asked is what in public health is called a case description. What is different about this population than other people that might be sick in Washington Country? And you know, everybody has a certain amount of illness about them and we wanted to sort out which was which, and I think we're getting close to the kind of exposures we did – we did a simple process where we took the individuals from each family we examined, we took their data and put it into a standardized format and then gave it to a panel of experts and said, Okay, identify which of these people you think would be likely to be sick anyway; which would be potentially affected by the gas drilling, and if so, what would they be affected by? And we found a portion of those people that in terms of the time when the drilling started and when the reported they were ill; in terms of the distance from the gas facilities; and in terms of the other health conditions they had, it could only be, or the most likely explanation is that they were being affected by the gas drilling.

BETWEEN THE LINES: On July 13, thousands of people are expected to protest at the offices of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, against its likely approval of liquified natural gas export facilities that would be supplied by an increase in fracking around the country.

DAVID BROWN: FERC takes a very narrow view of what it's responsible for in a very broad problem. FERC could go a long way toward correcting this problem by saying, You have to tell us what's in the gas line; you're going to have to tell us where you got it from and where you got it. FERC doesn't do that; it says, No, we're responsible for moving the gas and that's what we do, and that's our charge. If they would be a little more thoughtful, in my judgment, about what their responsibilities are on a larger scale, the risks would be understood. As it is now, one would have to be very naive to allow the person who provides the pipe to decide whether gas will come into your neighborhood or not.

Find more information about the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project and the hazards of natural gas fracking, by visiting Transcript compiled by Melinda Tuhus.

Related Links: