Harrisburg, PA – Over 400 health professionals in Pennsylvania called for significant reform at the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) over recent allegations that staff were instructed not to respond to residents calling with health complaints concerning fracking. The letter—spearheaded by Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE), Physicians for Social Responsibility-Philadelphia (PSR), and PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center—calls for new guidelines at the PA DOH to deal with future complaints, a public health registry, and other reforms to assess future impacts from the gas and oil industry. It also calls for an investigation to ensure problems like this do not arise again.
"The role of the PA DOH is to “prevent injury and disease” and to “lead the development of sound health policy and planning.” Yet when it comes to fracking the DOH has done little to prevent exposure or lead policy development," says Julie Becker, PhD, MPH, and board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Decisions about health need to be based on sound research—which relies on accurate data provided by government sources. The PA DOH does not provide accurate data to address the health needs of fracking communities, thereby hindering research, and permitting poor decisions to be made based on inaccurate information."
On June 19, StateImpact PA reported that PA DOH employees were instructed not to respond to citizens who contacted them regarding health concerns related to unconventional natural gas extraction, commonly referred to as fracking. Staff were instructed instead to refer fracking calls to the Bureau of Epidemiology, a procedure different from any other health complaint handled by the PA DOH. In addition, employees were given a list of “buzzwords” such as fracking, Marcellus Shale, and drilling. Field staff were also required to obtain permission to attend any meetings outside the PA DOH related to natural gas extraction.
“Everyday citizens in shale country are getting sicker and sicker as gas drilling expands across the Commonwealth,” said Adam Garber, Field Director for PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “Pennsylvanians deserve to have the confidence that the agency charged with protecting the public health will do just that. They deserve a government that protects them, not hides behind veils of secrecy and obfuscates the truth.”
Since the revelations by StateImpact, the PA DOH has announced enhancements to department procedures on the handling of public health complaints. Unfortunately, the PA DOH’s response does not fully address the deficiencies highlighted by health and environmental advocates. The PA DOH’s inadequate response to these very serious allegations only highlights the need for an investigation and reform of the department’s procedures.
The letter released today calls for a series of actions:
- Conduct a full, independent investigation into the PA DOH’s past response to fracking complaints, take appropriate action based on the investigation’s findings, and implement changes with well-defined procedures to ensure similar issues do not arise again in the future, whether in regards to fracking or other health issues.
- Open up all past and future health complaints to the public through a public health registry. This will allow local officials, medical providers, researchers, public health experts, and others to determine how oil and gas operations are impacting people’s health in Pennsylvania, including both residents and industry workers.
- Monitor all future health complaints made by PA residents or industry workers in PA and ensure complaints are fully investigated.
“Pennsylvanians living in fracking communities are at risk for a host of health problems including heart, lung, neurological and gastrointestinal problems,” stated Ruth McDermott-Levy, PhD, RN, of Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “Our state’s health department must protect Pennsylvanians by monitoring and publicly reporting health data from this industrial process that is infused within our communities.”
Fracking operations often use toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, such as benzene, and poisonous heavy metals, like arsenic and lead. These toxic chemicals end up in the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by fracking activities—some of which has been dumped or spilled into local waterways. In addition, fracking operations release high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – which are known to trigger asthma - and other harmful pollutants into the air. Chemicals used in fracking have also been linked to gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, respiratory, developmental, and neurological disorders. Illnesses ranging from headaches, nosebleeds, and skin lesions to vomiting and seizures, have been reported by residents living near drilling sites. Furthermore, there may be long-term health effects that have yet to be revealed.
In addition, the groups are calling on the PA DOH to establish a health registry to record all calls and health concerns previously expressed by residents in the state, and accept new reports that will be made accessible to the public. Although the Bureau of Epidemiology stated that they are maintaining a list of health complaints related to fracking, those complaints are not currently made available to the public. This hinders research and the development of sound public policy when such crucial data is not made available to the public.