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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gas drilling and public health: unanswered questions, unmet research needs, people at risk


Too much of the continually swirling controversy about unconventional natural gas drilling is characterized by hyperbole, by emotion, by he said-she said reporting, and by a series of monologues from industry champions and critics, instead of much-needed dialogue.

Left unanswered in all of what passes for debate are the central questions - the answers to which can’t be found unless we do the science needed to get the facts. And we are not doing nearly enough of it.

There is some critical research being done about the impacts of fracking, both on-the-ground and under it, and some very important socio-economic research is being conducted on the impacts to communities.  Then there is the kind of industry-funded research that at the very least raises questions, or is downright embarrassing in its full-throated industry cheerleading - which succeeds only in adding to public distrust. We need more of the former, and none of the latter.

But does gas drilling make people sick?  It is one of the most troubling questions of all, but despite recognition of the environmental public health concerns related to drilling, public health experts have been missing from the table of state and national advisory committees.  And we are hardly even in the game when it comes to research on the potential public health impacts of the shale gas era, and that is further feeding public fear, potentially exposing people to avoidable risks, and presenting a looming threat of litigation and other costly problems for the industry itself.

This year alone, Federal and Keystone State legislators have stepped away from the research table.  A U.S. House of Representatives committee refused an Obama administration request to fund $4.25 million in research on how drilling may affect water quality, and prior to the passage of Pennsylvania’s Act 13, the Pennsylvania General Assembly stripped out $2 million of proposed funding that would have supported a statewide health registry to track illnesses potentially related to gas drilling. Some noble community-level efforts have been made to begin to fill the public health vacuum, but without comprehensive medical reviews and robust research, the worries about the possible health effects of gas drilling will not go away – and people may suffer harms that can be avoided.

The worries are amplified by new research from Pennsylvania on the impacts of natural gas extraction on the health of newborn babies that was released before being subjected to peer review.  That possible rush to judgment comes soon after
opponents of gas drilling have come under fire for sometimes misleading the public on the health impacts of drilling. 

Some studies on the human risks of fracking are underway; other efforts are building, but searching for funding.  (Full disclosure: I am consulting to the Geisinger Health System Foundation.)  But with a comparative dearth of government support for public health research, researchers turn to philanthropic foundations – and to industry, again raising the question of whether industry-supported research is tainted.

We must solve the public health research funding conundrum and get badly-needed research, protection of people – and real dialogue - underway now.




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