Expert: Pa. didn’t address fracking health impacts

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pennsylvania’s former health secretary says the state has failed to seriously study the potential health impacts of one of the nation’s biggest natural gas drilling booms.

Dr. Eli Avila also says the state’s current strategy is a disservice to people and even to the industry itself because health officials need to be proactive in protecting the public.

“The lack of any action speaks volumes,” said Avila, who is now the public health commissioner for Orange County, New York. “Don’t BS the public. Their health comes first.”

Avila told The Associated Press that he believes senior political advisers did a “disservice” to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by putting a study of health effects on the back burner three years ago. That has led to a cycle of public fear and confusion, Avila said.

“What are you so afraid that we’re going to uncover?” Avila said of industry leaders, adding that it would be better to clearly tell people what is or isn’t a problem. “It’s not that I’m against fracking. I’m sure it’s helping many individuals financially.”

The gas drilling industry has said hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe and there’s no evidence of serious health problems from it.

In 2011, an advisory commission recommended the state create a public health registry to track drilling-related complaints and address concerns. The state House approved $2 million for it, but Senate GOP leaders and the governor’s office cut the funding at the last minute.

The Marcellus Shale drilling boom that began in Pennsylvania around 2008 has generated tens of thousands of direct jobs and more than a billion dollars in royalties to landowners but also complaints about air and water pollution and the industrialization of nearby communities.

Some people have complained that nearby drilling led to headaches, nosebleeds and other problems, and there are long-term concerns about the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process that breaks the rock to free gas. But without coordinated statewide research, it’s impossible to know how widespread or dangerous the problems are or even if drilling is responsible.

Avila spoke after media outlet State Impact reported that two former Health Department employees said they had been told to forward certain environmental health complaints - including drilling - to the Bureau of Epidemiology and to not discuss the issues with callers. The memo included other subjects beyond drilling, such as Superfund sites, garbage dumps and mining.

Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said in an email, “There was not and is not an effort to keep employees from taking Marcellus Shale-related health complaints or from following up on complaints.”

All such complaints, she said, are “immediately reported to the Bureau of Epidemiology for review and follow-up.”

Tysarczyk said the department has responded to all 51 Marcellus Shale health-related complaints it has received, and “any complaint or investigation is shared directly with the individual involved and his or her physician if the individual has seen a physician.”

The database of the complaints contains personal health information and can’t be made public because of medical privacy laws.

State Impact reports that Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Dakota log drilling-related complaints in databases, but Health Departments in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and West Virginia don’t keep track of them at all.

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