1. I know that the drilling companies are just starting to come to my neighborhood. How do I know what to look for? What do I do if I’m worried about exposure?
There are several things you can do if drilling activity is just beginning in your area.
(1) If you have email, you can request e-notices from the Pennsylvania DEP on permits granted to oil and gas companies. This will help you stay up-to-date on what is happening in your county or township. To sign up for e-notices click here and then click “Create User.” These notices can be complicated to understand at first. If you’d like help with these, please call the EHP office.
(2) Whether or not there is drilling nearby, we strongly recommend you have your well water tested. If drilling has not begun near your home, a water test will let you know what is in your water before your environmental conditions change. If you are within three miles of drilling that’s already begun, it’s still important to get a baseline test. Please see our water testing recommendations or call the office at 724.260.5504.
(3) Consider keeping a health diary. Write down changes in your health and your environment. For instance, it’s a good idea to write down onsets of headaches, skin rashes, nosebleeds, or nausea, as well as industrial activity or accidents. This information may be useful to you if your air, soil or water conditions change and/or if your health changes. If you have animals, keeping track of information pertaining to their health and fertility can also be useful. See our health diary example.
2. What are some of the symptoms people are experiencing in and around the drilling areas?
Most importantly, if you have health concerns – no matter what you think caused them – you should get medical attention. We still don’t have complete information about what might be getting into the air, soil and water near drilling activities and this makes it difficult to know what conditions or symptoms are caused by nearby industrial activity. In addition, health responses vary from person to person because exposures vary and because everyone has different levels of sensitivity to toxins in the environment.
That said, there are a number of health symptoms that are consistent across the country where natural gas extraction occurs. The most common health concerns that our nurse practitioner has heard and that are reported in studies of exposures near natural gas drilling activities include: headaches, nausea, abdominal pain, nosebleeds, skin rashes, asthma events, and other respiratory problems. We also know that people experience more stress, anxiety, and depression when there are environmental stressors. [Be sure to check back for our advice on depression, anxiety, and stress – coming soon].
We do want to caution you though—in places with environmental hazards people can assume that their health problems are simply a reaction to what’s in their environment, and because they can’t affect their environment they just accept their health conditions. This is a very risky assumption for two reasons: (1) Your health problem may, in fact, have nothing to do with gas activity and would benefit from treatment; and (2) maybe it does have to do with gas extraction activity but still, conditions can often be treated. Untreated health conditions can lead to far worse problems in the future. Let your doctor or other health professional know if you think you are sick, injured, or have worsening symptoms.
If your symptoms are of an emergency nature, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, shortness of breath, numbness in the arms, facial drooping or loss of consciousness, call 911 and seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY at your closest emergency department.
3. What do I do if I notice changes in my air or water?
If you notice changes in your well water and have the ability to stop drinking, cooking with, and showering in it, you should do so until you can verify that your water is safe. To learn about the quality of your water, Penn State Extension office has provided water test information and recommendations. These can be found at http://www.aasl.psu.edu/Water_drinking_main.html.
EHP has developed a water monitoring protocol that will help you determine whether something has contaminated your water. Although it cannot pinpoint what has gotten into your water, it lets you know when something has changed and you should do follow-up tests. See the summary of our water monitoring protocol. Contact our office for advice and guidance on low-cost water testing kits to monitor your water on a regular basis.
We also suggest venting a room while you’re using the water, to remove potential releases of gas particles from the water into the air. For example, in your kitchen or laundry room, run an exhaust fan while using the faucet or washing machine.
If you notice changes in your air quality, we provide recommendations on our 3 Good Things to Do document (this document also gives suggestions for addressing some water, light and noise concerns). Recommendations related to air include using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, taking off your shoes when you come inside, and cleaning kids’ outdoor toys and the floors where they play often. We suggest letting fresh air in your home when it is breezy outside, usually in the middle of the day. Unhealthy air can collect closer to ground level when the air is still, usually in the morning and evening.
If you feel strongly that your air quality is poor, do what you can to spend your time elsewhere. This is especially true if you live with young children, elderly people, or other vulnerable individuals.
We are currently working with specialists to develop a strategy for residents to test their own air quality. Please check back with us or contact the office for more information.
4. I think I’ve been exposed to toxins in my water and in the air around my house. What types of lab tests should I get done?
This is actually a much harder question to answer than you might think. There are two types of laboratory tests. One looks for signs of toxic chemicals in the blood, urine or skin. The other looks for the actions, or effects, of toxics on body systems. These effects could include breathing trouble, nosebleeds and easy bruising. Unfortunately, in many cases, neither type of test will give you the answers you’re looking for.
In order to test blood or urine for substances you may have been exposed to (“exposures”), it is necessary to know, or have a very good guess about, the likely exposures. For instance, if a person has reason to believe he was exposed to arsenic or bromine, a doctor might request blood or urine test to find out. Unfortunately, if you live near gas extraction activities you and your doctor probably don’t know what exactly you may have been exposed to (and maybe you haven’t been exposed to anything unusual). We know – from looking at other situations where there is an unknown array of exposures – that medical testing for many substances is not necessarily a useful path to follow. If at all possible, it is best to try and determine, via water and air tests, what the specific exposure may have been prior to requesting medical tests.
Another reason lab tests can be tricky has to do with timing. If you were subjected to an exposure a few weeks ago, evidence of that exposure may no longer be detectable in your blood or urine. In this case, if your test comes back “negative” you won’t know whether you simply were not exposed or whether you were exposed but signs of that exposure are no longer evident in, for example, your blood.
The complicated nature of possible health problems related to natural gas drilling activities leads us to believe that one of the most important things you can do is reduce your points of exposure. Please see our 3 Good Things to Do for our suggestions on reducing exposures.
Our recommendations should not deter you from seeing your doctor or other health professional. If you are experiencing any health problems or have any unusual symptoms, regardless of their origin, you should see a health professional. You and your health care provider may be able to figure out what, if anything, you were exposed to. But even if you can’t pinpoint the cause, your doctor may be able to treat you or refer you to a specialist.
5. What if I am pregnant or expect to become pregnant?
Everything we have said so far pertains to pregnant women … only more so. Regardless of whether you are in proximity to gas drilling activity or not, all pregnant women should take every possible precaution to protect the health of their unborn child. If you have any concerns about your environmental conditions — water, air, noise, excessive light – make sure you let your health care provider know. If at all possible stop drinking, cooking with and showering in well water you have serious concerns about. If you live near gas extraction activity, try to get a thorough water test. Take every precaution you can.
6. What kind of services can I expect from EHP’s office?
Our nurse practitioner can help assess your health concerns and provide referrals to other health professionals as needed. She can help you think about your environmental exposures and what steps you might take to minimize them. She can also help you address the stress you might be under given the activities going on around you. Please explore our website to learn more about our services and resources.
If you make an appointment with us, please bring any medical or environmental test results you have. It is also helpful, if you have the information, to bring records of when your symptoms or concerns began and if they went away, when that happened as well.
The EHP office also serves as a resource center for information on the potential routes of exposure from hazardous substances, as well as strategies for limiting the risk of health effects. We can help you understand your needs for water testing, show you how to monitor your water quality, and help you understand testing and monitoring results. We are currently developing a similar strategy for air testing. Our staff is available by appointment in the office and by phone to address concerns residents have about environmental conditions. We will answer questions, provide guidance and direct people toward other resources when possible.
Stay Up to Date
For More Information please contact:
Raina Rippel, Director
SWPA Environmental Health Project
2001 Waterdam Plaza Drive, Suite 201,
McMurray, PA 15317
Open Monday — Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.