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Pennsylvania doctors worry about health effects of gas fracking

Public officials throughout Pennsylvania have been lauding the potential economic benefits of the natural gas industry setting up shop in the state. The industry has the potential to bring many jobs to the state to extract gas from underground shale formations. At the same time, many are worried about the long-term health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, the mining technique used to harvest natural gas.

Though some may assume that workers in the mining industry are more likely to sustain a workplace injury as the result of a machinery-related accident, many health professionals worry about the risk of illness associated with the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing -- or hydro-fracking -- process.

Those who live near natural gas wells being mined have been developing skin lesions that recur even after they've been surgically removed. Doctors can't explain what exactly what the lesions are, which is rather unsettling.

Many observers of the industry also fear the potential health impacts for those directly working in the industry, which likely includes many of those living nearby. The primary problem with this process is that the natural gas companies have been resistant to disclose the nature of all the chemicals used in the hydro-fracking process.

A new Pennsylvania law encourages natural gas extraction companies to reveal information about the chemicals they use to doctors. This seems encouraging, but the doctors are required to sign a confidentiality agreement if they receive the facts. This aspect of the law concerns many health care providers because they feel as though they are handcuffed by the medical liability issues associated with confidentiality agreement.

The prospect of well-paying jobs coming to the state is certainly exciting, but it is important to be aware of all the long-term side-effects of hydro-fracking. Even after a few years of using this technique, mysterious medical problems are emerging among those who are directly impacted. It would greatly benefit for workers to understand what chemicals exactly they are being exposed to while on the job. Furthermore, disclosing the nature of the chemicals being used by the natural gas industry would help doctors provide the treatment that Pennsylvania natural gas workers may need.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, "Pennsylvania law on fracking chemicals worries doctors," Neela Banerjee, April 21, 2012

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