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Doctors Say Pa. Drilling Law Is Harmful to Health

April 12, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Public health advocates and doctors on the front lines of Pennsylvania's natural gas-drilling boom are attacking the state's new Marcellus Shale law, likening one of its provisions to a gag order and complaining that vital research money into health effects was stripped at the last minute.

Doctors say they don't know what to tell patients who suspect their ailments are related to nearby gas industry activity because of a lack of research on whether the drilling of thousands of new wells - many near houses and drinking-water supplies - has made some people sick.

Yet when legislative leaders and the governor's office negotiated the most sweeping update of the state's oil and gas law in a quarter century, they stripped $2 million annually that included a statewide health registry to track respiratory problems, skin conditions, stomach ailments and other illnesses potentially related to gas drilling.

Just last week, the Department of Health refused to give copies of its responses to people who complain that drilling had affected their health. That lack of transparency - justified in the name of protecting private medical information - means the public has no way of knowing even how many complaints there are or how many are valid.

Studies are urgently needed to determine if any of the drilling has affected human health, said Dr. Poune Saberi, a University of Pennsylvania physician and public health expert.

"We don't really have a lot of time," said Saberi, who said she's talked to about 30 people around Pennsylvania over the past 18 months who blame their ailments on gas drilling.

Working out of public view, legislative negotiators also inserted a requirement that doctors sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to proprietary information on chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

Although environmental groups and Shell Oil Co. alike pushed it, doctors and public health advocates say they weren't consulted and had no idea it was in the bill.

State officials say the rule, which mirrors decades-old federal regulations, is meant to give doctors explicit access to drilling firms' secret chemical cocktails. But Pennsylvania's leading medical association contends it may have a chilling effect on research and on doctors' ability to diagnose and treat patients exposed to carcinogens and other toxic substances.

"If there's this confidentiality agreement that you need to sign off on, how open are you to share that information, whether directly with the patient, or with the state, or for research?" said Dr. Marilyn J. Heine, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. "There is some ambiguity. The law isn't identifying what the limitations are."

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