Former employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Health were ordered by supervisors to ignore complaints about fracking-related health issues and follow a host of other rules to keep the dangers of drilling under wraps — even at the expense of people's health.
NPR State Impact spoke with two retirees from the department who said they were instructed never to return phone calls from residents with health problems stemming from natural gas development, like skin rashes, nausea, and nosebleeds. Employees were also given a laundry list of "buzzwords" and phrases to refrain from using when talking with the public — particularly those that explicitly related to the issue, like "fracking," "gas," and "soil contamination."
Other terms covered health and environmental issues, such as "hair falling out," "water contamination," and "cancer cluster."
The department confirmed the "buzzword list" on Wednesday, stating it was meant to be used as a guideline. As of 2012, the Bureau of Health Planning and Assessment was still passing the list around to staff members and asking them to send health complaints to the Bureau of Epidemiology, which was meant to follow up on the issues separately.
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Marshall P. Deasy, a 20-year veteran of the department, said that drilling was the only issue he could remember being censored by supervisors.
Many areas in Pennsylvania cover a portion of the Marcellus Shale, a large reserve of natural gas, making the state a lucrative place for the energy industry. Fracking, a controversial practice that involves using high-pressure drilling and chemicals to extract gas from deep underground, has been shown to release toxins into the environment and is linked to health issues like birth defects and cancer.
Lobbyists from the gas industry, as well as officials from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), have said that the few scientific studies conducted on fracking are not conclusive enough to confirm whether the practice is harmful.