DN Editorial: Hush, Doctors: Gas industry gags physicians

Posted: April 06, 2012

WHAT ARE they afraid of?

That's the obvious question that arises from yet another move by the fracking industry, and their BFFs in Pennsylvania government, to keep secret ("proprietary," if you will) the toxic chemicals that they are injecting into the earth.

Act 13, the hydraulic fracturing law passed in February, already qualified as a major corporate giveaway to the natural-gas industry, giving companies the right to overturn local zoning laws and pretty much drill anywhere. But buried in the law, which goes into effect April 14, is a gag order on doctors. If physicians want to learn the exact chemicals being used in fracking they must sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from sharing what they know with their patients or other doctors. At least that's how many health professionals and environmentalists read it.

Pennsylvania doctors already were flying blind when it came to answering their patients' anxious questions about the health effects of fracturing. In an essay in the Harrisburg Patriot-News in February, Dr. Marilyn Heine, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, reported that some of her colleagues were being asked if symptoms like rashes might be tied to fracking chemicals, or whether they should have their well-water tested. She said that medical expertise is being "handcuffed by a lack of research."

Act 13 adds a muzzle to the handcuffs.

Sponsors of the bill say that the confidentiality agreement is necessary because the exact cocktail of carcinogens - and 650 of 750 of the chemicals used in fracking are known to cause cancer - are "trade secrets," and that doctors might spread them to competitors in the oil and gas industries.

Puh-lease.

Isn't it far more likely that they know that if people knew about the massive amounts of benzine, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and other toxins to which they and their kids have been exposed, they would ask more questions - and ask them louder?

According to State Sen. Daylin Leach (D, Montgomery), the "broad and troubling" provision wasn't in the legislation that was debated and voted on in both houses of the Legislature in February, but was added in conference, so that many legislators likely did not know it was there.

But we have little faith that, even if the majority of members of the Pennsylvania Assembly knew about it, they would have hesitated before rushing headlong into this sweetheart deal for the natural gas industry.

And consider the irony of a legislature considering a law to force doctors to perform medically unnecessary ultrasounds on women seeking abortions, while at the same time threatening doctors who tell their patients how unborn children could be at risk from fracking chemicals.

This law cries out to be challenged in court. And legislators who voted for it need to be held accountable at the ballot box.

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