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Doctors Outraged By Claims That Health Officials Ignored Residents Sickened By Drilling

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"Doctors Outraged By Claims That Health Officials Ignored Residents Sickened By Drilling"

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Fracking opponents protest before the Tom Corbett inauguration to become the 46th governor of Pennsylvania at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011.

Fracking opponents protest before the Tom Corbett inauguration to become the 46th governor of Pennsylvania at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania doctors, nurses, and health policy experts are calling for a statewide investigation into claims that the state Department of Health has a policy of telling its employees never to talk to residents who complain of negative health effects from fracking, according to letter sent to state Gov. Tom Corbett and other elected officials on Tuesday.

The letter — spearheaded by the groups Physicians for Social Responsibility, Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments, and PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, and signed by more than 400 individual health professionals — says doctors and nurses statewide are “very concerned” about a story published in NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania this June. In that story, two retired employees of the health department said they were instructed not to return phone calls from citizens who said they may be experiencing sickness from fracking and other natural gas development.

The letter calls for an independent investigation into the claims, and reform of the health department’s response procedures.

“When it comes to fracking, the DOH has done little to prevent exposure or lead policy development,” Dr. Julie Becker, board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said in a statement. “The PA DOH does not provide accurate data to address the health needs of fracking communities, thereby hindering research, and permitting poor decisions to be made based on inaccurate information.”

According to the groups’ letter, the DOH has not done enough since StateImpact’s revelations that the agency may be mishandling citizen complaints. In response, the agency originally said it would improve its policies for handling environmental health complaints, and updated its website to provide a better explanation on how to file them.

In addition, the groups are asking the DOH to make public all past and future health complaints that citizens make to the agency through a public health registry.”This will allow local officials, medical providers, researchers, public health experts, and others to determine how oil and gas operations are impacting people’s health in Pennsylvania, including both residents and industry workers,” the letter reads.

As StateImpact noted, past health-related inquiries are maintained by the health department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, but have not been made public because they contain private health-related information.

Both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the DOH have said through spokespeople that they continuously followed the rules when responding to health complaints, and have always made public health a priority. The DOH also recently posted a message on its website in response to media buzz over the issue, asking residents to contact them if they have experienced health problems.

But if the allegations are true, damage may already have been done. Pennsylvania has had more than 6,000 hydraulic fracturing wells drilled within the last six years, and zero state studies on their health impacts. It’s been increasingly hard to prove that families can be sickened by drilling — in Colorado, legislators tried to commission a study on the health effects, but fossil fuel advocates ensured its demise. Doctors want more data on the health effects of fracking, but the interests of the drillers usually win out.

Meanwhile, natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed under Gov. Tom Corbett. He has expanded gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests, and in 2012 implemented a controversial state oil and gas law, known as Act 13, which severely restricts the ability of local governments to have control over drilling in their area. Multiple portions of the law have since been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

Since the story broke in StateImpact that the state Department of Health may be ignoring health complaints, the issue has received more attention — not only about whether the misconduct occurred, but also whether it’s criminal. Earlier this month, officials from the Pennsylvania state Attorney General’s office said it they would begin contacting and interviewing residents who say they reached out to state health officials about symptoms with no response. The interviews are not indicative of a formal criminal probe, however.

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