Mystery Illness and Mystery Smells: The Neighbors of America’s Fracking Boom Need Answers


Kay Allen is a nurse who deserves some answers. She works at a health clinic in Burgettstown, Pa. — in the southwestern corner of the Keystone State where the rolling hills are now pockmarked with fracking wells in a natural-gas gold rush. In one sense, Allen and her co-workers at the Cornerstone Care community clinic are like a lot of health care professionals across the suddenly overwhelmed Marcellus Shale region of Appalachia: They’ve seen an increase in visit from anxious neighbors who are worried that symptoms such as increased headaches, dizziness, rashes, difficulty breathing, and various and sundry aches and pains might have something to do with these new wells, polluting the air that they breathe or the water that they drink.

Lately, however, the medical worries of the fracking belt have really hit home for Allen and her co-workers. On a number of recent occasions, ghastly fumes — the nurse compared it to a massive spill of nail-polish remover — have overcome the waiting room at the rural clinic. On one occasion, Allen told a reporter for National Public Radio, the stench was so powerful that one of workers gagged and threw up; just when the office workers thought it was safe to return to their posts, a second wave filled the waiting room and a receptionist passed out. Suddenly, the health-care providers for an isolated rural community were too busy treating themselves. The employees told NPR that nothing like these events had happened before in the 20 or so years that the clinic’s been open; no one can pinpoint a cause with 100 percent certainty but the workers look suspiciously at the large natural-gas well recently drilled on the hill overlooking the clinic.

I learned the story about nurse Allen and her clinic in the heart of America’s Shale Belt as part of an excellent series that’s been airing this week on NPR entitled “The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers.” Those five words sum up what I believe is becoming an American tragedy. Simply put, as has been the case from the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the frozen tundra of Alaska, the nation has again and again kowtowed to the Big Oil companies with the philosophy of Drill (Baby Drill) First, Ask Questions Later. In the case of energy giants and their current Frackapalooza, that means that literally tens of thousands of wells were drilled deep into the earth under the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains and now huge swaths of Appalachian without any meaningful research into how that might affect the health of citizens.

Another installment of the NPR series chronicles how a county commissioner in Colorado set out on a mission 10 years to learn and understand the environmental health risks from fracking at a time when large gas rigs were just starting to dot the landscape. It notes:

And one of the first things she wanted to know was: Did scientists have any answers for what was in the air near wells? She was shocked to learn that there were no good studies. Not local ones, state ones or studies from the Environmental Protection Agency. Not about Western Colorado gas fields or any others in the United States. The industry wasn’t required to measure or report its emissions. She learned that her county didn’t even monitor its air quality, and she set about making it a priority for her county to study its air.

Ten years later, the Colorado commissioner is still waiting on those answers. At one point during the saga, a county health worker was able to place monitoring equipment close to eight fracking wells in the county, and what that worker found was alarming enough: Toxic carcinogens such as benzene were spewing forth into the air. But as has almost always been the case, neither the money nor the political resolve was there to aggressively study how this might be affecting the health of the folks who lived nearby.

Typical, isn’t it? It seems like every day there’s some new story about the law of unintended consequences in our manic rush to frack. This week, the New York Times had an article chronicling how more than 300 oil and gas workers have been killed on America’s highways over the last decade. Much of the carnage was linked to Big Oil winning exemptions to the rules that are supposed to govern how many hours that drivers are allowed to work in a given day. That’s how the oil giants roll — they don’t believe the rules should apply to them. Recently I’ve told you about the new Pennsylvania law that places a gag order on physicians who learn about the harmful chemicals that nearby fracking companies are using — barring them from sharing that information with their medical colleagues.

You have to think that better disclosure, better public-health research and a free exchange of ideas would help doctors in Appalachia like Dr. Charles Werntz, an occupational health expert at the University of West Virginia. He told NPR that he’s frustrated by an increasing caseload that may be related to fracking:

But for now, he says he can’t really do much more than offer basic advice: Drink bottled water, air out the house, leave your shoes outside. If it’s still too bad, move — if possible.

For many folks, that’s just not possible or practical. But it is practical, given the billions of dollars in profits that the gas drillers are yanking out from underneath the American soil, to invest some of those dollars back into public health, to enforce the rules that we actually have on the books, and to create a new regulatory scheme that will actually protect the air and the water in these communities. For baffled and worried citizens like Kay Allen, that is the very least we should be doing.

To read and listen to the NPR report about Kay Allen and the unanswered health problems from fracking, go to:

Check out another installment of the NPR series, about the quest for answers in one Colorado county, at

The New York Times report on highway deaths in the oil and gas industry is at:

Read my May 10 blog post about timid or wrongheaded regulation of the fracking industry:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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