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Are Frackers Trying to Gag Doctors?

Aug 26, 2012 | Parker Waichman LLP

Doctors in Pennsylvania believe a “gag order” imposed on them by state law limits their ability to practice medicine and treat patients and is likely to result in a public health problem.

The “gag order” imposed on doctors prohibits them from fully discussing a patient’s potentially or definite exposure to dangerous chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Under the state law, doctors may acquire information directly from companies which own wells that they suspect may be causing health problems but they are then prevented from discussing that information in full to their patients, specifically what chemicals they had become exposed to.

According to a report from American Medical News (, one plastic surgeon in McMurray, Pa., expressed her frustrations with the law in relation to a recent spate of patients who came to her office, each suffering from facial lesions they wanted treatment for. After conducting tests on the lesions and learning that each, unrelated patient had lived near the same fracking well and drank water from their own wells, the surgeon was able to contact the owner of the well and determine the patients had been exposed to phenol and hippuric acid. The contact irritants were found in each patient’s urine samples and had been used in the fracking well near where they lived.

Once the patients stopped drinking their well water, the symptoms eventually cleared. That may have brought some relief to the patients, the surgeon and other doctors in Pennsylvania believe their inability to fully discuss the real source of their patients’ illnesses violates their First Amendment rights and is in opposition to the oaths they swore by when first starting to practice medicine.

The state law requires physicians working in Pennsylvania to only discuss these issues with patients, but they can not fully discuss them. What chemicals a person was exposed to is prohibited as is discussing any of this information with the public whatsoever. The law is modeled after a similar measure in another fracking-friendly state, Colorado.

In Pennsylvania, some of the weakest environmental and health regulations exist governing fracking drilling. At every attempt, the state has blocked local measures to ban fracking drilling and has allowed almost unchecked expansion of wells and well sites as natural gas companies look for hidden deposits in the Marcellus shale formation, a rock bed about two miles below the surface and spanning most of western and northern Pennsylvania.

The state spins the law in a different way than doctors. It says the law requires drilling companies to disclose more information than any previous legislation.

The state government continually denies that fracking is unsafe, especially to human health. Despite this belief, a growing number of Pennsylvanians are learning of another reality. Those living closest to active fracking wells blame the drilling for contaminating their water wells and causing air pollution. More and more, people are beginning to associate health problems like skin irritations and other more serious topical problems and breathing difficulties on the localized drilling wells.

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