Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project To Address Fracking Health Concerns

02/22/2012 09:29 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A nonprofit group has opened an office in western Pennsylvania to help the public with health concerns over Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project opened an office last week in McMurray, southwest of Pittsburgh, and says its mission is to support people "who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities."

"The state lacks enough resources to really address this," Director Raina Rippel said Tuesday. "There is this gaping hole for the community."

Rippel said the project has several paid staff members, including a nurse. Other medical and research experts are consultants. The onsite nurse will make house calls in Washington County, but phone calls or emails from other parts of the state are welcome, Rippel said. The nurse will provide referrals, help clients navigate the health care system and consult with environmental health specialists.

All the project services are free, she said.

Rippel said her group has met with local public health officials, and will work with them. The group also is setting up a network of physicians to refer people to, and has been in contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Timothy Kimmel, director of the Washington County Department of Human Services, was out of the office Tuesday afternoon and could not immediately be reached.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said it supports a thorough, unbiased health assessment.

"We live, work and raise our families in these communities, and are absolutely committed to ensuring that our air, water and public health are protected," coalition President Kathryn Klaber told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "There is no higher priority, and to the extent this initiative can advance objective, fact-based research, we welcome it."

Rippel acknowledged that some people who worry about gas drilling could have been exposed to pollutants from another industry or have medical conditions that originated before the drilling boom of the last five years. Old coal mines and oil wells have been identified as possible sources of methane gas in drinking water wells.

"You don't necessarily have clear data," she said, of possible links between recent gas drilling and health problems.

But she said the only way to better understand these issues is through outreach and research.

Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician who has treated children from Washington County, said more studies need to be done on the health risks for those living near gas wells.

"It's difficult for those in the medical community to know what we should be on the lookout for, and how to address problems that we might see," Podgainy told the Post-Gazette. "I do not want my patients to become 'the canaries in the coal mine.' A proactive approach is to everyone's benefit."

The Health Project office is open Tuesday through Friday. It is funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Claneil Foundation.