Polls conducted in recent years show that close to 80% of Americans trust their doctors. They believe, rightly so, that their personal doctors are looking out for their patients’ best interests, and that doctors will do what is necessary to get patients healthy. But what happens when a doctor is legally bound to keep vital health information away from not just their patients, but from the general public? Under new laws being pushed by the fracking industry, we’ll soon have an answer to that question.
Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported on a new law in Pennsylvania that allows doctors to have access to the secret fracking formulas that the dirty energy industry is pumping into the ground, but they are legally required to keep that information private. From the Mother Jones report:
There is good reason to be curious about exactly what's in those fluids. A 2010 congressional investigation revealed that Halliburton and other fracking companies had used 32 million gallons of diesel products, which include toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, in the fluids they inject into the ground. Low levels of exposure to those chemicals can trigger acute effects like headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness, while higher levels of exposure can cause cancer.
Pennsylvania law states that companies must disclose the identity and amount of any chemicals used in fracking fluids to any health professional that requests that information in order to diagnosis or treat a patient that may have been exposed to a hazardous chemical. But the provision in the new bill requires those health professionals to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they will not disclose that information to anyone else—not even the person they're trying to treat.
Republican Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (who received $1.2 million from the oil and gas industry during his last election) claims that the interpretation of the law would allow the doctors to disclose pertinent information to a particular patient on a “need to know” basis, but activists dispute this claim. But this month, a proposed law in Ohio takes that physician gag concept to a whole new level.
House lawmakers in Ohio are drafting a proposal that would prevent doctors from being able to share any information regarding the chemical composure of fracking fluids, even if the health of the general public were in danger. If there were to be a well blowout or massive contamination of freshwater aquifers, doctors in Ohio would not be allowed to warn the public of specific chemicals in the fracking fluid they would be exposed to. The fracking industry claims that the gag order on physicians is necessary in order to protect their “trade secrets”, and prevent other companies from stealing their secret fracking formulas.
The ingredients of these fracking formulas have been closely guarded by the industry since the first days of fracking. To make matters worse, the fracking industry is operating with little to no oversight by the federal government, despite the fact that 68% of the American public is in favor of implementing stronger guidelines and more stringent regulations for the fracking industry.
ProPublica notes that the fracking disclosure bills circulating in the states are getting a helping hand from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and oil and gas companies:
…as part of a story on ALEC's political activity, The New York Times noted that the group recently adopted “model legislation” on fracking chemical disclosure, based on a bill passed in Texas last year. According to The Times, the model bill was “sponsored within ALEC” by ExxonMobil, which runs a major oil and gas operation through its subsidiary, XTO Energy.
The oil and gas industry maintains that there are absolutely zero human health effects from fracking, including exposure to fracking chemicals. But health experts think otherwise, according to Truth-Out:
“Some of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing—or liberated by it—are carcinogens,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber told members of the Environmental Conservation and Health committee of the New York State Assembly. Dr. Steingraber, a biologist and distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, pointed out that some of the chemicals “are neurological poisons with suspected links to learning deficits in children,” while others “are asthma triggers. Some, especially the radioactive ones, are known to bioaccumulate in milk. Others are reproductive toxicants that can contribute to pregnancy loss.”
An investigation by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, based upon thousands of unreported EPA documents and a confidential study by the natural gas industry, concluded, “Radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” Urbina learned that wastewater from fracking operations was about 100 times more toxic than federal drinking water standards; 15 wells had readings about 1,000 times higher than standards.
Research by Dr. Ronald Bishop, a biochemist at SUNY/Oneonta, suggests that fracking to extract methane gas “is highly likely to degrade air, surface water and ground-water quality, to harm humans, and to negatively impact aquatic and forest ecosystems.” He notes that “potential exposure effects for humans will include poisoning of susceptible tissues, endocrine disruption syndromes, and elevated risk for certain cancers.” Every well, says Dr. Bishop, “will generate a sediment discharge of approximately eight tons per year into local waterways, further threatening federally endangered mollusks and other aquatic organisms.” In addition to the environmental pollution by the fracking process, Dr. Bishop believes “intensive use of diesel-fuel equipment will degrade air quality [that could affect] humans, livestock, and crops.”
There is more than enough available evidence to show that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous to human health, but the industry continues to deny this. And since their lobbying money has successfully prevented the EPA from being able to monitor groundwater contamination near fracking sites, it means that contamination could be widespread, and completely unreported.