PSR-Chesapeake helps preempt "medical gag rule" on fracking
March 13, 2014
PSR's Chesapeake chapter has helped draft and launch legislation that would allow Maryland health professionals to access information on the specific chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, is a technique for oil and gas extraction that injects a highly pressurized mix of water, chemicals and sand deep underground. Many of the chemicals used are toxic, yet in some states, the identity of those chemicals is kept secret under so-called "medical gag rules."
The Maryland legislation would require companies engaged in fracking to provide data on the chemicals to state agencies, which would share it with doctors treating patients for possible exposures.
"This is a common-sense approach," said Tim Whitehouse, director of Chesapeake PSR. "It helps health professionals provide their patients with appropriate, effective treatment when they have been exposed to some really dangerous chemicals."
Read his testimony in support of the bill.
While the precise "chemical cocktail" used may vary from company to company, a number of the known chemicals, including benzene products,formaldehyde, and petroleum distillate, are known carcinogens or toxins which would render water permanently undrinkable.
These chemicals may contaminate water supplies during the fracturing and extraction processes or even after wells have been closed. In addition, people living nearby may be harmed by accidental spills, by the escape of fracking fluids from holding ponds, or by illegal disposure of hydraulic fracturing wastewater.
The proposed Maryland legislation would ensure that health care and public health professionals have access to toxicological, epidemiological and exposure-related information on the chemicals being used.
Health care providers would also be authorized to share information about possible chemical exposures with other health professionals as professionally necessary.
The proposed bill stands in stark contrast to the medical gag rule on the books in neighboring Pennsylvania. That law, which is applicable to attending physicians, requires them to make a written promise of nondisclosure in order to learn the identity of chemicals used by the gas industry. This information cannot be shared with anyone else in the public.
In the case of an emergency, doctors can learn about the chemicals verbally from a phone call after signing a written agreement.
That approach creates logistical challenges and delays in treatment, with potential danger to the health of the patient. It also blocks the development of epidemiological data necessary to understand the scope, scale and longer-term implications of exposure to the chemicals in fracking fluids.