A Canary in the Coal Mine or A Cow in the Gas Land
Dead Cows, Gag Orders, and Growing Concern Among Medical Professionals
Concerns continue to grow among healthcare professionals about health risks from the natural gas extraction process, particularly from deep shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale. Dr. Poune Saberi, a doctor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been monitoring the adverse health effects the industry on animals, people, and communities since the industry came to Pennsylvania. She recently voiced her concern in the op-ed “What the Frack: if Hydraulic Fracturing Kills Cows, What Can it Do to Us?” on the website VitaminW.
When asked if fracking impacts our health, her answer is simple. Yes.
She opens with a brief history of the natural gas drilling process, touching on some important points. In particular, high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses many times more chemicals with higher toxicity compared to the older-style shallow gas drilling, became exempt in 2005 from 7 of the 15 major federal environmental laws, which were designed to protect air and water, and ultimately humans, from radioactive and hazardous chemicals. She also explains that Pennsylvania is particularly vulnerable to the industry because it is one of the few states that does not regulate well water, meaning that no data about water quality was collected before the industry moved into town.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was at the helm of the administration in 2004 [when Pennsylvania began rolling out the red carpet for the fracking industry]. There were never any studies, public health or otherwise, into the potential disasters that drinking water contamination in our state could cause.
The Appalachian region of Pennsylvania has a long history of coal mining and of industry devastating the land, poisoning the rivers, and wreaking havoc on public health. It is here that the gas industry first leased land, moved in their diesel trucks and began drilling deep into the earth. She states
It was there that the public health community realized it is not just fracking that affects health, it is the entire life cycle of this technology that scars community members. Each gas pad can require more than 190,000 diesel truck trips to frack. No new research is needed to make the connection. The research about air pollution and health already exists and it was compounded in the coal ash regions in southwest Pennsylvania.
Dr. Saberi’s piece brings up many concerns, some that we have been aware of for years, but her last two points are the most timely and poignant.
She explains that health problems seen in animals are sometimes sentinel cases for human health problems and that we now have conclusive evidence that fracking has a detrimental effect on the health of cows. Although we have heard first-hand accounts from farmers many times, a peer-reviewed study by Oswald and Bamberger recently published shows that cows that drank water contaminated by fracking fluid had a 47% mortality rate. Nearly half of them died. It is easy to see them as the “canary in the coal mine.” Maybe one day we will call it the “cow in the gas lands.”
She also notes that we directly consume these cows and animals and their byproducts.
…animals are sources of food for humans. At a time when we ardently try to champion and support local, American cultured and grown food, we are creating an alarming source of toxic exposure. The technique to routinely test for radioactivity, chemicals and other unknowns does not exist when our food is concerned.
The last topic Dr. Saberi writes about is one that could directly affect her as a doctor. A story broken by Susan Phillips for StateImpact PA revealed that the Pennsylvania bill HB1950, also known as Act 13, passed in February 2012, would allow medical professionals to gain access to information about the chemicals and processes used in natural gas drilling in order to treat patients, but also requires them to sign a confidentiality agreement, restricting them from sharing that information — even with the patient they are treating. Many people are calling these confidentiality requirements a “gag order.”
This bill was signed into law by the current administration, [under Governor] Tom Corbett, and will be instituted mid April, 2012. Full analysis of this bill is beyond the scope of our discussion. However, I will bring attention to the health care provisions section, otherwise known as medical gag laws. It states that only when a doctor determines there is a dire medical emergency for a patient and swears to secrecy by signing the appropriate documents will a company whisper its proprietary mixture of fracking chemicals. That physician is not allowed to share this information, not with colleagues, nor with the patient. It is clear that this bill was not written with the interest of Pennsylvanians in mind. Otherwise, at least one public health professional would have been consulted.
As Pennsylvanians — as human beings — we deserve more than this. Our air, our water and our health should be protected by the federal laws that were set in place to do just that – no industry should be exempt. It is clear that fracking impacts our health, and doctors should not be forced to withhold information from the public, from their patients and from their colleagues.
Hydraulic fracturing clearly affects our health—as it did those 102 dead cattle. That’s before mentioning the other exposures such as noise, vibration, light or the emotional trauma of the stressors that fracking activities cause.
It is important for medical profesisonals to speak out like Dr. Poune Saberi, but it doesn’t take a medical professional to see that we should all be alarmed by the issues raised in her article. As citizens we need to contact our representatives and support bills like the FracAct, which would close some of the loopholes and ensure industry compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and bills like the one introduced on April 16th by Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (Delaware and Montgomery Counties), which would reverse the gag order in Act 13.