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November 24, 2010

Marcellus shale: GSPH conference explores health issues

MarcellusA wide-ranging daylong conference on the public health impacts of development of the Marcellus shale drew upon lessons learned in other regions and raised questions for future research.

“We all seek an integrated strategy for a sustainable energy sector of the economy,” said Donald Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), in his welcoming remarks at the school’s Nov. 19 event. “We must help industry learn best practices for protection of public health and the environment.”

Burke acknowledged that the topic has generated much political discourse. Citing the city’s recently enacted ban on drilling and a city council member’s associated comment that the jobs generated by natural gas development would be at funeral homes and hospitals, Burke said, “Our purpose here today is to provide a more measured voice about the health consequences of the Marcellus shale.

“Thus far the era has been characterized by an ad hoc regulatory climate, passionate advocacy, a booming industry and political posturing and too many unsubstantiated assertions from all sides,” he said, adding that he hoped to help change the climate “to one of thoughtful scientific investigation and collaboration among academia, industry, government and the public advocacy groups.”

Scientists from Pitt as well as other institutions presented research on impacts of Marcellus shale drilling on air and water quality and discussed aspects in need of additional study.

In addition to obvious environmental concerns, psychosocial effects can’t be separated from the public health discussion, said Bernard Goldstein in his presentation on health and safety considerations in fossil fuel extraction.

A summary of the health impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill noted that oil was spilled “into a social as well as a natural environment,” said Goldstein, past dean of GSPH and a professor in Pitt’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “It’s not just the toxic chemicals.”

Alluding to his work in toxicology in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he said, “I am far less concerned about the toxicology of those chemicals in terms of health effects than I am about the psychosocial impacts of being thrown out of a job, all of the uncertainties, all of the unknowns. Those are major impacts that are happening.”

Toxicology studies can’t evaluate nonspecific impacts. “We know that we very often can’t put a name or diagnosis to some of the health effects people are complaining about,” he said. Using the definition of health as not merely the absence of disease, but also one’s physical, social and mental well-being, if individuals cannot function because they feel they are being affected, “Those people are not healthy,” Goldstein said. “We need to act in a way that will prevent, as best we can, these effects.”

A common theme among the day’s speakers was that more information is needed and that baselines should be established in order to determine any potential cause-and-effect relationship attributable to Marcellus shale drilling.

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of what we know and what we understand,” said moderator Radisav Vidic of Pitt’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Clearly there are lots of questions being raised and I think the exchange of information and sharing of information among stakeholders would be one crucial set,” he said. “What’s clear to me is that we don’t have baseline data.”

Without information on the initial conditions before Marcellus shale drilling began, potential impacts attributable to the drilling cannot be determined. “It’s much better to do proactive studies to find out what the situation is right now so you have a baseline for comparison. The retroactive studies are very expensive and very inconclusive in the most part,” Vidic said. “I think the challenge to the community — both the research community, the industry and the community that lives in this region — is to perhaps engage in some kind of a dialogue to collect sufficient information that would provide baseline studies in the region where perhaps drilling hasn’t occurred, and then use that information to assess potential impacts from industrial activity,” he said.

“The critical issue really is to start exchanging the information in an unbiased and scientifically valid way to address the issues and ensure that everybody’s questions are answered appropriately. I think both industry and the public have to play an important role in that.”

Organizers said the presentations would be posted on the Marcellus conference page at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 7

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