Energy. Environment. Economy.

How are energy boom states dealing with drilling-related health complaints?

Kimberly Paynter/

Different states are addressing the impacts of shale drilling on public health in different ways.

Is heavy drilling making some people sick?

It a question doctors, public health researchers and regulators in oil and gas-producing states are still struggling to answer roughly six years into the American shale boom.

So far, one thing is clear: different states approach the issue of public health and drilling in different ways.

StateImpact Pennsylvania teamed up with Inside Energy - a collaboration of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – to learn more about how states are dealing with the intersection of drilling and public health. Here’s what we found:

  • Three states – including Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Dakota – log complaints in databases.
  • Five of the state health departments we contacted said they were not tracking health complaints at all.
  • Two states have put large-scale drilling on hold until they complete reviews of the environmental and health impacts of drilling.

Some states not tracking health complaints

“The Ohio Department of Health does not maintain a database nor do we have a monitoring program,” said spokeswoman Melanie Amato in an e-mail. “The Ohio Department of Natural Resources tracks oil and gas complaints, but nothing related to health.”

Similarly, officials in Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and West Virginia said their agencies had little or no regulatory role in oil and gas development. All five states referred us to their oil and gas commissions or environmental protection departments.

In West Virginia, health officials in one county have struck out on their own.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department has created an online survey where residents can report potential health impacts such as respiratory problems or sleep disturbance from noise or light.

So far, about 50 people have responded to the survey since it was launched in January, according to county health administrator Howard Gamble.

“We had the community coming to us and the plan to collect data from two major hospitals wasn’t going to work,” said Gamble. “So this was the county’s response to try to collect data.”

The data will eventually be turned over to researchers at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health. The university has received state funding to pursue studies on the impacts of shale gas development.

Public vs. private databases

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology logs complaints related to natural gas development in a database. Spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said the bureau also follows up directly with people who file complaints and conducts investigations.

The state Department of Environmental Protection also fields calls on health concerns.

“The department often advises the complainant to call DOH and consult a physician if the complainant believes there is a health concern related to their environmental issue,” said DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner in an email.

The commonwealth’s Department of Health has logged 51 complaints since 2011 – about three years into the Marcellus Shale boom.

However, the agency said the contents of the database include “protected health information” and cannot be shared with the public.

In North Dakota, state regulators have been tracking these complaints for the past six months, but the data is also not readily available to the public.

By contrast, regulators in Colorado log all drilling-related complaints – including health and environmental concerns – in a public online database maintained by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

A spokesman said the panel investigates all complaints within 48 hours.

“When people lodge a health complaint, agency staff collects information about the activity the individual believes may be related and then we inspect those operations for any problems or anomalies,” said Todd Hartman.

The database contains information about 1,175 complaints over the last five years.

An Inside Energy analysis of the data found that concerns about groundwater was the most common (about 37 percent) of all drilling-related complaints between 2008 and 2012. The second most common complaint was about noise from nearby gas development operations (about 10 percent).

However, for all the data available about complaints, public health researchers say they are missing baseline information that would help them draw more accurate conclusions about whether drilling is impacting health.

“What was the air quality like before,” Lisa McKenzie, a research associate at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health told Inside Energy. “What was the water quality like before and what was the health of the population before?”

Drilling on hold in Maryland and New York

Two of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have cited the lack of data as a reason to put large-scale shale gas drilling on hold.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has directed the state departments of environmental protection and health to review the scientific literature around the impacts of natural gas development. Over the years, the state has missed a series of self-imposed deadlines to finalize these reviews.

In Maryland, the state is funding a specific kind of study known as a “health impact assessment.” It is part of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s “safe drilling initiative,” which also includes a review of best drilling practices and a study of the potential economic impacts of development.

Dr. Clifford Mitchell with the Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the assessment will be used to guide policymakers for eventual drilling in the western part of the state.

“What we’ve asked the University [of Maryland] to do is to look at some baseline data for health, to look at what the potential hazards are from the literature, to use any available data resources,” Mitchell said. “The whole goal to look as broadly as possible at potential health impacts.”


  • Julieann Wozniak

    We just sweep them under the rug and gag people who have the temerity to speak about them.

  • tom411

    I think that the best evidence there is that these complaints are non-existent is the fact that the workers who work directly in these operations daily, often living on the site for a month at a time, and moving from well to well for years do not have health issues from the exposure to these operations. I am sure they suffer some sleep deprivation as the equipment required to drill is not quiet (which is why hearing protection is required), and lighting is required 24/7 for safety reasons, however, there are tens of thousands of workers in this industry that are not experiencing health problems despite direct and constant exposure. Common sense should tell you that if health problems would be obvious, it would be among the workers directly exposed. The fact is, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports fewer health problems and far fewer fatalities in the drilling industry than either the construction industry or among agricultural workers. Perhaps these health departments need to start recording and reporting agricultural and construction industry health issues more robustly- and I suspect the coal mines that the product of these gas wells is replacing have had far more health issues (black lung, mine explosions, mine collapses) than drilling crews have ever experienced. Perhaps the drilling is actually improving overall public health due to fewer health issues related to production of the resource (natural gas instead of coal), and fewer air pollution issues related to the consumption of the resource? Have you considered that?

    • jonathandeal

      Have you considered that you are writing nonsense? Improving public health? What bollocks! And come out from behind your screen name Tom411

      • tom411

        You must have a serious aversion to considering the facts.

        In reality natural gas has replaced large quantities of coal fired power generation which is one of the largest sources of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulates, along with NOX. Natural gas is probably responsible for significant reductions in air pollution related health problems such as asthma.

    • NorthernTier

      The BLS numbers quoted are primarily for safety-related incidents, not health impacts.

      “NIOSH Oil and Gas Extraction Safety and Health Program”

      “NIOSH Field Effort to Assess Chemical Exposure Risks to Gas and Oil Workers
      While there has been ongoing and significant research on safety aspects (fatalities, causes of injuries, etc.) of the profession, the same cannot be stated for the occupational health (workplace health issues compared to workplace safety) aspects of the profession. There is little, existing information regarding occupational health risks for chemical and mineral exposures to workers in the extraction and production industry. ….”

      Also, consider that gas workers normally would not be drinking local residents’ private well water. So, they would not be exposed to that potential risk.

      • tom411

        Actually, while BLS numbers are primarily safety-related, they also
        include OSHA recordable medical treatments, which are health impacts.

        workers often do drink the local residents water. Potable water is
        needed to live on a drilling rig and it has to come from somewhere, and
        more often than not it is from a local water supply. I would concede
        that they are not drinking it over the same long exposure time. Having
        tested many water wells prior to drilling operations, I can attest to
        the fact that well water is often found contaminated prior to any
        drilling and the gas workers are not allowed to drink it. In a
        peer-reviewed study published in the journal “Groundwater” over 1,700
        were tested and 78% had methane in them. Historical records show that
        this has been the case for over 200 years.

  • Victoria Switzer

    From OSHA: from 2003 to 2010 workers were killed on the job at a fatality rate of 7 times greater than the rate for all U.S. industries .The dangerous conditions that may result in fatalities: vehicle accidents, struck by/caught in/caught between, explosions and fires,falls, confined spaces, chemical exposures. You can also read about the concerns and dangers of the silica sand use. The exposure to diesel particulates, other gases, hi low temperature extremes, high noise levels, overexertion leading to sprains and strains and fatigue due to long hours…..

  • clairesse

    this article is dated july so it should have included a discussion of the fact that PA Dept of Health workers have revealed that they were not allowed to talk to people calling with health complaints. That they were supplied with buzzwords they were not to respond to. So people with nosebleeds, respiratory problems etc from fracking did not get the attention they should have. There are over 1400 people on the list of the harmed in pa. Are they all delusional? People are sick and research is supporting this. Low birth weight and apgar scores, neural tube and heart defects in babies born in frack areas, and increased risk of cancer and non cancerous disease.Hormone disruptors in the water near fracking which are seriously detrimental to normal development. (see Nagel and Kassotis). Also see Currie, McKenzie, Adgate work. Look up the research.

    • NorthernTier

      Follow the “logs complaints related to natural gas development” link in this article (and back-links in that article) for the information you complain is missing from this article. The topic has been well covered by SI-PA.

  • William L. Yingling M.D.

    I believe that chemical endocrine disruptor pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed presents a potentially serious health hazard to all Pennsylvanians eating the fish and drinking the surface water from this watershed. The problem arises from numerous sources.

    In 2010 I voiced my concern to the PA Department of Health about chemical contamination of the watershed in an effort to enlist their help for the investigation of a dump in Northumberland County that many of us felt presented a public health hazard and should be listed as a superfund site.

    I was told then that it was the responsibility of PADEP to do any investigation and provide actionable information on potential threats to human health due to contamination of the water supply. Really?

    I have very little confidence that anyone is collecting “actionable” epidemiological information on human health and disease associated with the chemical contamination of the water supply.

    WIlliam L. Yingling M.D.

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