Questions Arise on Public Health Effects of Drilling

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
11 May 2011
By Laura Olson, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- State health officials say the number of questions they're fielding on Marcellus Shale gas drilling is growing quickly, but the answers they need to reassure residents are not.

To illustrate the kind of messages they've been receiving, the state's acting physician general read a letter they received last month at Tuesday's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission work-group meeting.

Dr. Stephen Ostroff recounted that several weeks before a resident found out from a drilling company that well water was contaminated, the person became extremely ill. The person's hair began to fall out, and there were speech and balance issues, according to the letter.

A doctor prescribed anxiety medicine, not searching for the ultimate culprit -- high levels of barium in the blood -- until the resident learned that the water was polluted with barium and various other contaminants. High barium levels can cause nervous-system problems, Dr. Ostroff said.

"This is not the only [letter] that we've received of this nature in the past month or two," he told the group. "These citizens expect that we will provide some sort of feedback or guidance as to whether there is a real basis for concern here."

The advisory commission saw a glimpse of how concerned some Pennsylvanians have grown about drilling risk when protesters filled its meeting last month. Dozens of anti-drilling activists spoke about their fears that natural gas exploration would ruin the state's water and air.

The state Department of Health can offer some assistance to concerned residents, but Dr. Ostroff said there currently is no "systematic assessment" of the potential for health risks as drilling activity continues.

Both he and Bernard Goldstein, interim director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, said there should be more data collection and monitoring of air and water quality.

That analysis of public health effects will need to be a long-term undertaking, Mr. Goldstein said. He urged the panel to suggest an in-depth review of health risks in its July report to the governor.

The testifiers also said public health officials need to hear from local health care providers about what they're seeing in their communities. That conversation can allow officials to help local doctors understand the new situations they may be facing and the need for different testing or additional evaluations, they said.

Dr. Ostroff added a note of urgency on the need to start making changes and addressing public fears before federal environmental officials, who are wary of the state's drilling operations, put their own requirements in place.

"I do have increasing concerns that if we do not start doing some of these things, our federal partners will start doing them instead," he said.

Laura Olson: or 1-717-787-4254.