A handful of prestigious universities will conduct research on the health effects of oil and gas development in the Marcellus Shale. A stone's throw away, three hospital networks and the Pennsylvania Department of Health hope to set up a database of health records, socioeconomic and psychological effects and environmental sampling.
The challenge, as with other proposed health studies in the Marcellus, is money.
The public health effects of shale gas development have caused much concern. In New York, residents are eagerly awaiting the state's report on public health, part of its ongoing study of hydraulic fracturing.
But that report will not prove or disprove health effects, simply because studies so far have not established a clear cause-and-effect relationship between fracking and health. The studies available, instead, are surveys of people falling ill and anecdotes of livestock dying. The most thorough documentation of the anecdotes was published last year, noting incidents such as 17 cows dying after being exposed to fracturing fluids for one hour.
Such studies have been attacked by industry as unscientific. What is required are studies that clearly link exposures with observed health problems. And those studies are complex and require more funding.
"Depending on which side of the coin you are on, the gas drilling industry or environmental advocacy groups, there's a lot of misinformation being thrown out there," said Trevor Penning, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.
"I think that both sides of the issue, to some extent, overstate their position, and you also wonder what the validity of the data they are referring to in the first place," he said.
So the University of Pennsylvania is spearheading a research initiative in collaboration with Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Harvard University, and seven other centers affiliated with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Separately, Geisinger Health System, Susquehanna Health and Gutherie Health, in collaboration with the state Department of Health, are putting together a database reflecting patient health across the Marcellus Shale.
The scientists would first have to find out if there are pollutants that communities are exposed to, and then explore the effects of those chemicals in the human body.
But when it comes to water pollution by fracking, "we can't even identify the hazards of that well because many of the chemicals that are being used are not publicly disclosed," Penning said.
For some of the disclosed chemicals, scientists have not studied their toxicology to know how bad they may be for health. In addition, chemicals in a complex mixture such as fracking fluid can amplify each other's effects or even cancel each other out. No one has studied these synergistic effects.
These questions are complex and would require more funding than the consortium has. The scientists are currently putting together a survey in Pennsylvania on people's health effects and the perceived relationship to gas drilling.
They are also trying to secure funding for a project on water quality and health along the Pennsylvania-New York border, and for another project to map the proximity between health complaints and gas drilling.
U.S. EPA does have its own hydraulic fracturing study that examines the issue of groundwater contamination, and it has been collaborating closely with industry. But depending on its findings, the agency could be accused of focusing on drilling sites that are too clean, Penning said. It is usually worker carelessness, leading to surface spills and casing failures, that has been tied to contamination.
Studies on the public health impacts of air pollution are easier to put together. There are clear federal limits for the pollutants, and there has been significant research on the major pollutants -- volatile organic compounds, diesel fumes from machinery, and methane leaked from oil and gas sites.
A study out of Garfield County, Colo., found that people living within 500 meters of a well had a higher risk of negative health effects (EnergyWire, March 20, 2012).
Studies in recent months have suggested ongoing leaks of pollutants from oil and gas sites (EnergyWire, Jan. 22).
Since the Geisinger-led study was first announced last year, the initiative has grown to include other hospitals, as well as Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University well known for his fracking research (EnergyWire, May 14, 2012).
Geisinger wants to put together a comprehensive and evolving database of health complaints, environmental exposures, and even socioeconomic factors such as depression and crime. The database could be mined to answer a number of questions related to Marcellus Shale development. And the hospital records would provide a baseline of health from prior oil and gas development.
But it has been difficult to secure money, even though all potential funders have expressed interest, said Andrew Deubler, executive vice president at the Office of Resource Development at Geisinger. The initiative so far has $1.5 million.
"It's almost better, when you go into a funding situation and you get a definitive 'No, I'm not interested; that's a bad idea,'" said Deubler. "In the majority of cases, as we talk to funders about this project, there is overwhelming support for the concept and overwhelming support for the idea of the outcome we are promising."
That does not translate to funding. A database, though expensive to set up, would be a valuable tool documenting the health and environmental status on the Marcellus Shale over time, but funders prefer cause-and-effect studies with clear and immediate answers, Deubler said.
Ultimately, the federal government and Congress have to rise to the challenge and provide the funding, said Penning of the University of Pennsylvania.
"The NIH was originally established with the concept that there could be rapid response to emerging health issues, and one would like to hopefully see, when Congress does give the National Institutes of Health a budget, that some of that money would become available."