This report is part of a joint project by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News.
Like people in other regions transformed by the shale energy boom, residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania, have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and skin rashes. But because there are no comprehensive studies about the health impacts of natural gas drilling, it's hard to determine if their problems are linked to the gas wells and other production facilities that have sprung up around them.
A group of scientists from Pennsylvania and neighboring states has stepped in to fill this gap by forming a nonprofit — apparently the first of its kind in the United States — that provides free health consultations to local families near drilling sites. Instead of waiting years or even decades for long-term studies to emerge, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) is using the best available science to help people deal with their ailments.
"As far as unconventional natural gas drilling goes, we are the public health service of the United States right now," said Michael Kelly, the media liaison for the EHP.
David Brown, a toxicologist and the group’s co-founder, said government agencies haven’t done enough to study, analyze and mitigate the risks people face from drilling.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection — which oversees the oil and gas industry — has no ongoing or planned health studies, though it is researching air and water quality at certain sites, Scott Perry, the agency's director of oil and gas management, said at a media event last month. None of the hundreds of millions of dollars in impact fees the state has collected from the industry since 2011 has gone to state or local health departments.
InsideClimate News contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Health multiple times over a two-week period to ask how it manages the public health risks of unconventional gas drilling. The agency did not provide any answers, even though two spokespeople — Yasmin Coleman and Tom Hostetter — said the department would respond to the questions.
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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.