The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has been studying the potential health impacts of unconventional gas and oil development while working toward helping build a health registry.
About 40 people attended a program Saturday hosted by the League of Women Voters of Mercer County at the Community Library of the Shenango Valley, Sharon. “Shale Update: Public Health Issues” was led by Dr. Jill Kriesky, associate director of EHP, a nonprofit group based in McMurray, Pa., and founded in 2012.
The group sees value in creating a health registry to address public health concerns in relation to drilling activities; their mission focuses on accurate, timely and trusted information and services, she said.
EHP, which has a nurse practitioner and does water monitoring, among other research, collects data on specific health symptoms, and Kriesky notes that it’s not just the drilling itself that can cause health issues - it’s the entire process from start to finish.
Drilling companies are required to report to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Chemicals commonly found in emissions from unconventional oil and gas drilling include ethyl benzene, benzene, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, and sulfur oxides.
Some of those chemicals can impact organ systems including the respiratory, dermatological and neurological systems, according to reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, she said.
Different stages of the drilling process can pose different dangers, Kriesky said. For example, when compressor stations are running to move gas and oil through the pipelines, more toluene, ethyl benzene, benzene and xylenes are emitted.
“There seem to be large percentages in that process,” she said.
Potential side effects of coming in contact with such chemicals can include irritated eyes, skin, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, weakness, liver and kidney damage and even comas and leukemia, as noted by the NIOSH.
Some people could argue that some of those side effects are also flu symptoms, which is true, but chemical exposure is more serious, Kriesky said.
EHP has studied residents who live within .6 miles of drill sites, and their research includes a complete medical history of the participants, as well as information on where they work and whether they may be exposed to chemicals elsewhere.
“Many people do live that close to oil and gas development activities,” she said.
EHP is researching 54 cases of people with symptoms not explained by other exposures or medical conditions.
“We try to be very careful with our data,” she said.
Symptoms were reported in 70 percent of those cases ranging from sore throat and shortness of breath to burning and itching eyes and sleep disturbance and anxiety.
It should be noted that mental and behavioral health issues are closely related to physical health, Kriesky said.
A number of other studies from other parts of Pennsylvania show a possible connection between drilling-related chemical exposure and a higher incidence of birth defects, high-risk pregnancies, endocrine disruption, hospitalizations and rashes and upper respiratory illnesses.
Findings of all original research on health-related impacts of drilling from a study done by PSE Healthy Energy between 2009 and 2015 show 21 out of 25 cases indicated potential public health risks or actual adverse health outcomes.
More studies are needed to determine the long-term effects of emissions and exposure on health, which Kriesky said raises the need for a health registry.
A registry can help people learn more about conditions and treatments, connect with experts, researchers and healthcare providers and consider interventions to reduce the risk of disease.
Questions remain as to what format would work best, who would be involved and who would run it, she said, adding that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has shown some interest in participating.
The 2015-16 Pennsylvania state budget includes $100,000 to help develop a registry, but the budget still has yet to be approved.
In the meantime, agencies like EHP are keeping the conversation going and disseminating as much information as possible to the public.
“That’s what we’ll continue to do,” Kriesky said. “It’s our responsibility to keep hammering away at it.”
Info: www.environmentalhealthproject.org, including how to register for a webinar series with experts set for Feb. 29, March 7 and March 14 about the community and psychosocial effects of oil and gas development.
The League of Women Voters has a Facebook page as well as a website for upcoming events: http://lwvmc.weebly.com/