Public health advocates say they’re disappointed by the lack of funding for Marcellus Shale-related health research in the recently signed Pennsylvania impact fee law.
One of the key players in the drafting of the law says, however, that such research has drawbacks as well as benefits.
Earlier versions of the bill had set aside $2 million to track and monitor public health in drilling areas. Marilyn Heine, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, says the funding is essential to gather unbiased, baseline health information.
“We’re hamstrung by the fact that we don’t have the data we need,” says Heine.
Heine says gathering baseline data is vital to any study of whether any significant public health impacts can be linked to gas drilling.
“There are physicians who see patients and they may have a cough or a rash,” says Heine. “But [the doctor] is not sure if there’s a relationship [to drilling activity].”
The lack of data and knowledge, says Heine, makes it difficult to treat patients, or give advice on prevention. Heine says states like Colorado and Texas, where a drilling boom began before Pennsylvania’s gas rush, don’t provide a great road map.
“We can look at other communities where fracking has been going on for some time,” said Heine. ”But we’re not sure they have all the data either.”
But Drew Crompton, one of the main authors of the bill, says funding such a study would be “dangerous.”
Crompton serves as Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati’s chief of staff, and helped draft the law. He says funding a baseline study in heavily drilled areas could cause unnecessary panic among the residents.
“Imagine living near a well, and everything’s fine, and you get a letter in the mail asking to take part in medical tests,” says Crompton. “And then those people are like: ‘Why do I have to get tests? What could be wrong with me?’”
Crompton says funding health studies with impact fee money is not out of the question. But he says it would have to be handled “very carefully.”