Sick From Fracking? Doctors, Patients Seek Answers

By » Tue, May 15 2012
Soil sampling 450x300 Sick From Fracking? Doctors, Patients Seek Answers

Dirt does hurt (img by Maggie Starbard)

Kay Allen had just started work, and everything seemed quiet at the Cornerstone Care community health clinic in Burgettstown, Pa. But things didn’t stay quiet for long.

“All the girls, they were yelling at me in the back, ‘You gotta come out here quick. You gotta come out here quick,’ ” said Allen, 59, a nurse from Weirton, W.Va.

Allen rushed out front and knew right away what all the yelling was about. The whole place reeked — like someone had spilled a giant bottle of nail polish remover.

Soil testing 450x300 Sick From Fracking? Doctors, Patients Seek Answers

Science And The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers (img by Maggie Starbard)

“I told everybody to get outside and get fresh air. So we went outside. And Aggie said, ‘Kay, I’m going to be sick.’ But before I get in, to get something for her to throw up in, she had to go over the railing,” she said.

Nothing like this had ever happened in the 20 years that Allen has been at the clinic. After about 45 minutes, she thought the coast was clear and took everyone back inside.

“It was fine. But the next thing you know, they’re calling me again. There was another gust. Well, the one girl, Miranda, she was sitting at the registration place, and you could tell she’d had too much of it. And Miranda got overcome by that and she passed out,” she said.

‘It’s The Unknown I Think That’s The Scariest Thing’

This sort of thing has been happening for weeks. Mysterious gusts of fumes keep wafting through the clinic.

In fact, just the day before being interviewed by NPR, Allen suddenly felt like she had been engulfed by one of these big invisible bubbles.

“And all of a sudden your tongue gets this metal taste on it. And it feels like it’s enlarging, and it just feels like you’re not getting enough air in, because your throat gets real ‘burn-y.’ And the next thing I know, I … passed out,” Allen said.

Half a dozen of Allen’s co-workers stopped coming in. One old-timer quit. No one can figure out what’s going on. For doctors and nurses used to taking care of sick people, it’s unnerving to suddenly be the patients.

“It’s the unknown I think that’s the scariest thing,” she said.

Richard Rinehart, who runs the rural clinic, can’t help but wonder whether the natural gas drilling going on all around the area may have something to do with what’s been happening.

“I lay in bed at night thinking all kinds of theories. Is something coming through the air from some process that they’re using? I know they use a lot of chemicals and so forth. Certainly that could be a culprit. We’re wondering, Is something coming through the ground?” Rinehart said, noting that he’d just noticed a new drill on a hill overlooking the back of the clinic.

Now, no one knows whether the gas drilling has anything to do with the problems at the clinic. It could easily turn out to be something completely unrelated. There’s a smelting plant down the road and old coal mines everywhere.

“Anything could be possible, and we just are trying to get to the root of it,” he said.

Mysterious Symptoms, Lots Of Questions

People living near gas well drilling around the country are reporting similar problems, plus headaches, rashes, wheezing, aches and pains and other symptoms.

Doctors like Julie DeRosa, who works at Cornerstone, aren’t sure how to help people with these mysterious symptoms.

“I don’t want to ignore symptoms that may be clues to a serious condition. I also don’t want to order a lot of unnecessary tests. I don’t want to feed any kind of hysteria,” DeRosa said.

To try to figure out what’s going on, the clinic called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which is investigating. It also started testing the air for chemicals, monitoring wind direction around the clinic and keeping diaries of everyone’s symptoms. In addition, the clinic contacted Raina Rippel, project director for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.

The local nonprofit was set up recently to help people in this kind of situation. Her team tested tap water from inside a men’s room and from a stream out back.

Rippel says she knows people in the area have a lot of questions: “Is my water fit to drink? Is the air fit to breathe? Am I going to suffer long-term health impacts from this?”

Connecting Experts In Search Of Answers

To try to answer these questions, her project is connecting doctors and patients with toxicologists, occupational health doctors, environmental scientists and other experts.

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