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Monday, December 7, 2015

Shale & Public Health: A conversation that's not fading away

The League of Women Voters of PA presented its third annual Shale & Public Health Conference in Pittsburgh on November 18, and what's abundantly clear is that the nexus of natural gas drilling and public health in Pennsylvania is a subject of continued interest and debate.

A packed room at the University of Pittsburgh's University Club heard a succession of speakers weigh in on impacts to public health from fracking activity in the Marcellus Shale region ranging from compromised air quality to poor outcomes in newborns.

Dr. Bruce Pitt, department chair, University
of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Dr. Bruce Pitt, department chair of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, is participating in leading research to better assess perinatal outcomes for mothers in natural gas drilling regions. He noted that there is a fetal basis for adult diseases that can be traced back to the environmental experiences of the mother. Dr. Pitt's current studies are focused on Washington, Butler and Westmoreland counties in southwestern PA -- a heavily-fracked region -- and are showing an increased incidence of babies that are small for gestational age as well as premature births. Dr. Pitt further noted that we need more studies over "an extended period of time" to better assess the public health impacts of natural gas development, and that a 30-year cycle of study makes sense to allow for a full life cycle of fracking plus longer-forming diseases such as certain cancers.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project's Dr. Jill Kriesky reiterated the need for a registry on the health impacts of fracking in PA. "We need a [fracking] health registry since researchers have determined that there are public health impacts from this activity," said Kriesky. "The goal is for Pennsylvania to have a robust health registry other states would want to replicate so we have this data across the country."

Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University is the lead on the much-discussed Geisinger study of health impacts in the fracking regions of northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA). The Geisinger Health System, which has a large presence in NEPA, has an abundance of well-tracked data, making it a good candidate for study. "By using Geisinger data, we're studying the data of people in [fracking] impacted counties," noted Schwartz, adding that the National Institutes of Health is funding three studies to date that are looking at environmental issues and associated health outcomes. One study's key takeaway: An association between fracking and pre-term birth that is 40 percent higher, "conservatively," in fracking regions. Schwartz's continuing research includes studying asthma exacerbation in drilling regions (the disease's latency is short, making it an ideal vehicle to assess fracking impacts) as well as the study of certain cancers including leukemia and tumors.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, emeritus dean and
professor, Pitt Graduate School of Public Health
Dr. Bernard Goldstein, the emeritus dean and professor of the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health, touched down in Pittsburgh the night before the conference after spending the fall teaching in Cologne, Germany. Consequently, he honed in on the differences in how fracking is viewed in the U.S. and the EU. While European countries with large shale reserves are keen to drill, their public is largely opposed. That's in stark counterpoint to the U.S., where it's unlikely that we'll completely abandon fossil fuels, thereby making it ever clearer that we have to get drilling right for the sake of public health and the environment. Dr. Goldstein continued: "We have not had the oversight we need in Pennsylvania [on shale gas development]. No one on Gov. Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee had a public health background."

It was clear after a full day of speakers and breakout sessions that the conversation in PA on shale gas drilling is fluid. However, much more has been learned, especially about the harmful air pollution related to fracking that is leading to negative health outcomes for Pennsylvanians, including our most vulnerable populations.

Consequently, we should continue to push for the strongest possible rules to address air pollution from natural gas drilling including methane emissions from both new and existing sources. Absent strong protections and strict enforcement, we will not be able to ensure good public health and a safe environment.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @NewGirlInTown.

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