A new study has been proposed by Geisinger Health Systems – in conjunction with Brian Schwartz of John Hopkins University – which could potentially outline the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the production of natural gas. The focus of the study would take place in Pennsylvania, a state that has had more than 5,000 natural gas wells drilled into its gas rich Marcellus Shale rock formation over the last few years. The study would also make use of Geisinger Health Systems’ expansive database of electronic health records for more than 2 million citizens of the State of Pennsylvania, and attempt to discover the health effects associated with gas production.
The proposed study comes as a response to the factual deficiencies surrounding the fracking industry. In the past few years, many people have claimed to have been harmed by the chemicals associated with the fracking of gas wells, but have not been able to provide the hard data necessary to link their symptoms to gas production. The usage of the Geisinger database would be especially important in providing the raw data necessary to draw definitive answers about the relationship between fracking and ill health effects. The long term goal of the study would be to establish whether the fracking industry increases the occurrence of diseases such as diabetes and cancer in local populations.
In the short term, researchers are interested in studying the relationship between asthma and fracking. Affecting about 6% of the United States population, asthma sufferers often develop increased health problems when exposed to ground level ozone, a pollutant that often appears near gas wells in Pennsylvania. The Geisinger database contains information on a large number of Pennsylvanians who suffer with asthma, and could establish those patients’ distances to active gas wells. Furthermore, air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), could provide data on the days when ozone levels are high, allowing researchers to use the Geisinger database to answer questions about asthma patients. Drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania has mainly occurred in the last five years in Pennsylvania, while existing health information goes back at least ten. Thus, control information exists which could allow researchers to compare data for asthma sufferers from before and after drilling operations began.
The only problem with moving forward with the study is funding. The asthma study alone has been projected to cost nearly a million dollars, with no donors in sight. The study does have the full support of Geisinger though, with Associate Chief Researcher of Geisinger, David Carey, stating that the study has the support of the CEO of Geisinger on down. The study has generally received positive responses, which Carey explains as being caused by the common viewpoint that Geisinger is a neutral party in the national fracking debate. Carey has stated that Geisinger’s purpose is not to disrupt the fracking industry, but to instead let the facts gathered through the proposed study lead to their own conclusions.