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Medical Data Base Could Hold Key To Solving Fracking’s Effect On People

According to an article recently featured on NPR, a proposed study of people in Pennsylvania could lead to a final answer in the debate about whether a drilling process for natural gas and oil known as hydraulic fracking is making people sick. The article reports that the study would look at detailed health histories on hundreds of thousands of people who live near the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in which energy companies have already drilled about 5,000 natural gas wells. The article explains that the study would be the first large scale scientifically rigorous assessment of the heath of effects of gas production on the general population.

In correlation with the natural gas boom the United States has experienced in the last decade, there has been a substantial increase in reports of individuals who say they have been harmed by hydraulic fracking. Hydraulic fracking is a process in which a mixture of sand, chemicals and water is injected at high pressures into the ground to allow trapped oil or gas to escape. NPR explains that many medical experts say the debate is still open because there is a lack of hard data to affirm or refute the claims of fracking related illnesses.

NPR reports that Geisinger Health Systems in Pennsylvania wants to use its huge data base of electronic medical to help researchers get definitive answers regarding the hydraulic fracking debate. Researchers at Geisinger say the long-term goal is to learn whether gas operations increase the incidence of diseases such as diabetes and cancer, Carey says. But first, he says, researchers want to take a quick look at whether air pollutants associated with gas drilling are affecting people with asthma and other lung problems.

The asthma study is possible because Geisinger's database includes tens of thousands of people with asthma, says Dr. Paul Simonelli, the system's director of thoracic medicine. Researchers say they want to start with asthma patients because they are very sensitive to ground-level ozone, a pollutant that often forms near gas wells. According to Dr. Simonelli, primary care physicians are usually the first people patients call. Further, when ozone levels get really high, he says, asthma patients start showing up in emergency rooms.

Reportedly, About 6 percent of people in the United States have asthma, so the article points out about an enormous number of people who are potentially at risk to have their conditions worsened by these exposures. According to Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Geisinger data base contains such detailed information that it makes it possible to figure things out like precisely how far each asthma patient lives from a gas well. Schwartz, who is working with Geisinger on the project, says the plan is to use air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency to identify days when ozone levels are high, then use the database to answer a series of questions about asthma patients. However, Schwartz also points out one crucial fact, the asthma study alone is likely to cost nearly a million dollars — and no one has offered to pay for it yet.

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