By Dr. Larry Chiaramonte
I long ago dubbed Hunt’s Point, the Bronx, New York where I work as “America’s Canary” because I believed that the levels of air pollution that made it the number one asthma zip code in the country portended rising asthma levels for the rest of the country.
Now a unique combination of factors in Pennsylvania presents a chance to test elements of my thinking. A company called Geisinger Health System dominates provision of health care in the part of rural Pennsylvania that includes the Marcellus Shale, which has rich deposits of deeply buried natural gas that can only be tapped by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Briefly, this entails large quantities of chemicals, water, and sand being pumped into deep rock to break up rock formations and free up the gas. Critics worry about earthquakes and groundwater pollution as well as health effects.
Geisinger has had very advanced electronic health records for 10 years. Sliced and diced properly, the accumulated data should allow an unusually detailed picture of how health in the region has been affected by the 4400 wells that have been drilled since 2009. The most accessible condition is asthma. The ten-year record provides a built-in baseline for measurement.
This is a welcome development. Although I am known as a climate-change skeptic, I am an air pollution hawk. That is, I know that air pollution contributes to our terrible epidemic of asthma. If unlocking all that much-needed energy is turning the clean air of rural Pennsylvania into a health hazard like the black carbon of the Bronx, or maybe the more apt comparison is to smoggy Los Angeles since the big problem with fracking is ground-level ozone, I want to know about it.
Once Geisinger has the money to crunch the numbers, they should be able to tell fairly quickly how fracking translates into primary-care visits, school and work absences, inhaler use, and emergency department utilization. Maybe the movie stars who have made this a cause can help find the money. (See actor Mark Ruffalo discuss fracking on the Colbert Report here.
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