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Pa. health department reaches out to doctors amid controversy over drilling complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to respond to people who called with drilling-related health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to return calls from people drilling-related complaints.

Are doctors in Pennsylvania seeing patients with possible health effects from natural gas development?
The state Department of Health wants to know.
The agency reached out to physicians through the Pennsylvania Medical Society this week, following a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania into how the agency handled drilling-related health complaints.
In a message on the society’s website, the department asks health professionals to contact the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology if they have encountered patients with symptoms they suspect could be related to natural gas operations.
Two retired state employees told StateImpact Pennsylvania that in 2012, community health staffers were instructed not to return phone calls from people who complained about gas development, but to forward the caller’s name and number to a supervisor.
In the wake of these allegations, state health secretary Michael Wolf wrote an editorial published on on July 22.
In it, Wolf made several claims about how the agency has addressed the potential impacts of shale gas development, including:

  • That the department “has conducted outreach on the issue” through the Pennsylvania Medical Society,
  • That the department has been “working with schools of public health in Pennsylvania to further understand and study the potential health impacts of drilling,”
  • That the department “will continue to carry out related monitoring activities under Act 13 of 2012,” the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law.

Neither Wolf, nor a department spokeswoman mentioned these initiatives in prior interviews with StateImpact Pennsylvania.
We checked in on where these initiatives stand. Here’s what we found out.

Survey of doctors “not statistically relevant”
In July 2012, the Pennsylvania Medical Society emailed a survey to about 8,500 physicians across the commonwealth. A spokesman said the survey was developed by the state Department of Health and included 14 questions about the doctors’ interactions with patients who reported “adverse health effects from deep-well gas drilling.”
Of the 8,500 who received the survey, only 126 doctors responded.
The Department of Health declined a request for a follow-up interview with Secretary Wolf and directed further inquiries to the agency’s press office.
Spokeswoman Holli Senior said the department determined the survey was “not statistically relevant.”
“While the information was helpful, 126 responses is not a good representation of the medical community in the commonwealth,” she wrote in an email.
The results also show that more than 100 of them did not answer most of the 14 questions in the survey.
You can read the results of the survey here.
One question all 126 physicians did answer was about their preparedness to provide information to patients about the potential health effects of shale gas development. The majority reported they “did not feel at all prepared.”
Chuck Moran, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said the Department of Health got in touch with the group last week about putting out a follow-up survey.
“I think they want to make sure they didn’t miss anything,” Moran said. 
“A stretch to say that we’re working with them”
In the editorial, Wolf said the department has been working with the state’s schools of public health “to further understand and study the potential health impacts of drilling.”
However, spokespeople for Pennsylvania’s two schools of public health – the University of Pittsburgh and Drexel University in Philadelphia – said their institutions were not involved in specific research collaborations with the state.
When asked for details about these studies, Senior said the department has had “several meetings over the last three years” with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, the University of Pennsylvania and Geisinger Health System.
Geisinger is teaming up with two other private healthcare systems in central and northern Pennsylvania to use electronic medical records to find out if residents near shale gas operations are showing increased rates of certain diseases, such as asthma.
Wolf wrote the department is “providing consultation and verification of data and study methodology review for this project.” Deputy health secretary Martin Raniowski sits on the study’s executive steering committee.
The department is not providing funding for the initiative.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania say the Department of Health has been receptive to their work.
Last September, three researchers from the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) at the University of Pennsylvania met with agency officials to discuss their studies on Marcellus Shale drilling and health. Staffers for two state senators – John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon) and Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) – helped to arrange the meeting.
“It was really informational in terms of what we were about, to get their attention level to the point that they could realize that the scope of the issues we’re trying to address and the fact that we’re currently under-resourced,” said Dr. Trevor Penning, CEET’s executive director.
Penning’s colleague Dr. Reynold Panettieri said the state health officials they met with seemed “very interested” in their research.
“It was a stretch to say that we’re working with them,” Penning said.
Dr. Evelyn Talbott is an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.
Talbott is leading a study on babies born to women living near gas wells in western Pennsylvania. She said the state provided records on roughly 13,000 births for the study.
“The fact that they’re willing to share their data to researchers for legitimate research questions I think is a very important thing,” she said. “They put up no stumbling blocks.”
No regulatory role
Talbott’s colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Bernard Goldstein has criticized Governor Corbett’s administration for not giving the Department of Health a bigger role in overseeing the natural gas industry.
The state’s oil and gas law, Act 13 outlines numerous regulatory directives to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but there is no clause that refers to the health department. About $2 million in state funding to track and monitor public health in drilling areas were cut from the final legislation in February 2012.
Senior said “the department assists [the DEP] as needed” with shale-related “monitoring activities.”
Drew Crompton is chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson). Crompton was one of the main authors of Act 13.
He said funding was never allocated to the health department because lawmakers were not satisfied with then-health secretary Eli Avila’s proposal to monitor residents living near natural gas operations.
“Maybe a general registry could work, but we don’t want fear factors running through these districts when people don’t believe they’re being harmed, don’t have any reason for concern,” Crompton said.
In May 2013, Scarnati proposed a bill to create a 13-member advisory panel, chaired by the state Secretary of Health. The group would solicit proposals for research into the potential health impacts Marcellus Shale development and distribute funding.
The bill was tabled last July.
Crompton said Scarnati is “still interested” in pursuing the panel.
“We want a well-thought-out plan before there’s an appropriation for the initiative,” he said.
How to register a health complaint
The Department of Health said anyone with environmental health concerns, including complaints about natural gas development, should contact the Bureau of Epidemiology:
Pennsylvania Department of Health
Division of Environmental Health Epidemiology
Room 993, Health and Welfare Building
625 Forster St., Harrisburg, PA 17120
Phone: 717-547-3310 Fax: 717-346-3286
Toll free hotline: 1-877 PA Health (724-3258)
StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Susan Phillips contributed reporting. 

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