Medical Experts Meet Today in Hershey to Discuss Health Impacts of Gas Drilling

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
15 October 2011
By Laura Olson, Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- State medical care providers aren't sure exactly what health risks they may find associated with natural gas drilling, but they say that's all the more reason to begin compiling data now.

Shale drilling and its impacts will be a key topic this morning as several hundred of the commonwealth's doctors gather for the Pennsylvania Medical Society's annual meeting in Hershey.

Three researchers, including the University of Pittsburgh's Samantha Malone, are scheduled to talk about the science behind hydraulic fracturing and a current study on drilling effects in the state's northeastern region.

Ralph Schmeltz, the organization's president, said their aim is to keep an open mind and learn more about the drilling process.

"Right now, there's so much mythology and angst about fracking that if you develop a hangnail and there's a well within 20 miles, that well caused the hangnail," Mr. Schmeltz said.

"We want to make sure we know what the science is."

Concerns about spilled fracking fluid, methane-contaminated drinking water and emissions-filled air brought dozens of citizens to speak up during the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission meetings earlier this year.

State health officials also expressed uncertainty, testifying during those sessions that they have yet to perform a systematic assessment of whether drilling activity poses any health risks. As part of the panel's recommendations, they suggested creating a registry to track health complaints in drilling regions.

This morning's 90-minute session, open only to medical society members and reporters, will review those recommendations. A broader meeting will follow in November to begin crafting some guidelines for physicians, Mr. Schmeltz said.

He noted that the organization has looked to other states, including analyzing a report from the Colorado Department of Health.

That document found no direct public health impacts but some secondary ones, such as increases in crime and public drunkenness.

Any guidelines they can give to doctors on what symptoms to watch for or tests to run would be a step up from what they have now, Mr. Schmeltz said.

"Right now, all I can give them is the literature that we've gathered," he said. "We don't really have any conclusions."

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