NRCI gets baseline reading for ongoing study of health risks in shale region


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It’s no secret that Pennsylvania has seen tremendous growth due to the number of Marcellus Shale-related jobs in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania. The industry has seen a growth of more than 240-percent since 2008 with jobs that pay on average about $81,000 per year, according to the figures compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

But what are the risks, especially regarding fracking — the process where chemicals are used to break up rock to access the natural gas beneath the Earth’s surface? Many people fear the chemicals used in the fracking process are not safe and could contaminate groundwater.

The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute (NRCI), with funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, recently completed a study examining health risks associated with the industry. The study is an initial health assessment, meant to be used as a starting point from which to measure future impacts. As yet, the study has no answers as to whether fracking is safe from a public health standpoint.

“What we want to be able to do from a scientific standpoint is to be able to tell the community and to tell the interested parties, including the state, here’s what everything looks like today,” said Bob Durkin, president of The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute, thus establishing a baseline for the area.

He said the goals of the study were identify the chronic disease and other related health issues that currently affect people in the shale region, what risk factors are at play and to find people willing to be a part of the study over the long term. He said the results of the study will also allow NRCI to re-visit the information in five years to see if things have changed.

“We wanted the opportunity to do something bigger down the road,” said Durkin, meaning NRCI wants to look at this information in possibly 20 to 30 years. Durkin said participants in the study provided DNA samples, chronicled their smoking and exercise habits and detailed their family history of chronic disease.

The year-long study logged the health of 456 people who live in Bradford, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

“The findings really aren’t that shocking relative to other research that may have been done on this population,” Durkin said. “People in this region smoke a lot, they aren’t particularly healthy. We have people who have alcohol abuse issues and diabetes, too. There are a lot of other risk factors, including obesity,” he said. “It’s not an insult to the population — it’s just a statement of fact about the population, of which, of course, we are all members.”

He said that while there’s a lot of emphasis on the Marcellus Shale part of the study, it’s also important to note and promote a healthy lifestyle.

Earlier this year, the Geisinger Health System announced a similar study that would examine the health effects of Marcellus Shale drilling, including the safety of drinking water. The first phase would happen over a three to five year period.

“The information that we’re collecting, we’re hoping to bring to Geisinger to help them move forward as well,” Durkin said.

Durkin said NRCI has been anxiously waiting for the state to move forward on Gov. Corbett’s advisory commission recommendations on the Marcellus Shale issues. Those recommendations include a suggestion that the state set up a chronic disease registry in the Marcellus Shale region. “It’s a process where the state would identify and list endemic chronic diseases,” he said. “That data, over time, should be able to provide a particular snapshot or viewpoint of the population.”

He said that in Pennsylvania, the only statewide chronic disease registry is the registry dedicated to cancer. Durkin said the Cancer Institute collects data from nine hospitals, multiple private medical practices and laboratories for input into the cancer registry database. In regard to the Marcellus Shale, the state has agreed to expand that registry, but has yet to act. The funding for the expansion would be provided by the state.

Regardless of what the study finds or the research that is collected, results won’t be quick. “It will take time,” said Durkin. “It may take 10 or 20 years before you see anything.”

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