Hospital to Mine Patient Database for Fracking Ills
1 May 2012
Geisinger Health System, a nonprofit chain of hospitals in eastern
Pennsylvania, plans to use its database of patient records to
determine whether natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale is
The hospital system began planning the project last year and
started mining hundreds of thousands of medical records in recent
weeks, David Carey, the director of Geisinger's Weis Center for
Research, said in an interview at a conference in Washington.
Carey said Danville-based Geisinger is talking with foundations,
the government and the gas industry about contributing money to
expand the project.
The Institute of Medicine, advisers to the government on health
care, is examining whether the fracking process of extracting
natural gas from shale rock poses health risks. Concerns include
the potential for water and air pollution, as well as inhalation
of sand dust, according to academics and government officials who
spoke at a workshop sponsored by the institute this week.
"There's all these concerns about what the health risks are, but
we're really limited to anecdotal data," Carey said. The database
can contribute "real hard, rigorous scientific data" to the
debate, he said.
Fracking releases gas trapped in shale rock by injecting water,
sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground. It's used for
almost every new natural-gas well drilled in the United States.
"Fundamentally I believe that we can operate tight gas wells
safely," said Rob Donnelly, vice president of health at Royal
Dutch Shell Plc's Shell Oil Co., in an interview at the
conference. He said the company was willing to participate in
studies as long as there's "a good, clear question being asked and
"We're not afraid of science in this space -- far from it," he
Fracking has enabled energy companies to access fuel trapped in
previously impenetrable shale rock, reversing a decline in gas
production. Shell drills in the Marcellus shale, which stretches
from New York to Tennessee.
Fracking has been used to drill more than 4,400 wells in
Pennsylvania since 2009. Companies spent about $20 billion in
Pennsylvania's shale from 2008 to 2010 on leases, drilling rigs
and royalties to property owners who leased their mineral rights,
according to a July report from Penn State University's College of
Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Natural-gas companies drilling on U.S. land would be permitted to
wait until after hydraulic fracturing is completed to disclose
what chemicals they used, under a draft rule being considered by
the Interior Department. Disclosure "would only be required after
the fracturing operation has taken place," according to the draft,
obtained by Bloomberg News.
The rule, which also includes standards for well construction, is
consistent with guidelines established by the American Petroleum
Institute, the largest industry trade group, according to the
The examination by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the
National Academy of Sciences, isn't a formal study and won't
result in a report or recommendations to the government.
Donnelly said he wasn't familiar enough with Geisinger's project
to say if Shell would be interested in giving support.