Toxic Secrets: New Report Shows Fracking Gag Rules Threaten Public Health

Nobody wants to be kept in the dark about their health, or the health of their loved ones. And when it comes to keeping people healthy and safe from toxic chemicals, lack of information can cause a lot of damage, and even be deadly. Stories like the 2008 report of a critically ill nurse - whose doctors were unable to get information on the chemicals to which she was exposed when she treated a worker covered in fracking fluids - show the danger of secrets related to fracking.

A new report out today, however, shows that politicians and the oil and gas industry are continuing to meddle and interfere with good patient care. Politics in the Exam Room: A Growing Threat is a collaborative effort from a variety of diverse nonprofit organizations, focused on a wide array issues--including environmental policy, gun control and reproductive rights. Each organization weighed in on our separate areas of focus and the ways in which politicians are interfering with the professional and ethical standards of healthcare. Within it, NRDC's chapter--"Toxic Exposures"--looks at laws which protect corporate secrets at the expense of patients potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals used in fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a chemical-intensive process that has fueled a massive expansion of oil and gas extraction across the United States in recent years - bringing heavy industrial activity increasingly closer to homes, schools and communities. In fact, more than 15 million Americans--nearly 1 in 20 people here--now live within a mile of at least one well.

A large number of the chemicals used in fracking present significant environmental and human health threats--from respiratory hazards and harm to the reproductive system, to known or probable carcinogens. People can be exposed to these chemicals at the well site, in drinking water, and in the air - originating from accidents, blowouts, explosions, above or below-ground leaks and spills, leaking and faulty wastewater disposal, and equipment leaks and releases. The transportation and storage of fracking chemicals, and the resulting contaminated wastewater, also present risks for communities and workers far from the well site. Yet, these chemicals are largely kept secret from the public and even in those states which do require disclosure; the information is incomplete, unreliable and subject to restrictions.

Whether it's a toxic spill into a river or treating someone sprayed with chemicals, medical professionals need to know what the chemicals are and how they can be toxic to people. And they need that information quickly. However, the laws in multiple states have prioritized secrets - to protect companies - over good medicine. These laws places extra hurdles and burdens on medical professionals, making it hard to get the information and then placing restrictions on who they can share the information with - including prohibiting doctors from telling their own patients.

These laws are bad for public health for a number of reasons:

  • Sharing and communicating about the cause of an illness is an essential part of the relationship between patients and medical providers - and in some cases family members.
  • Oftentimes, healthcare providers may need assistance from specialists to help them properly diagnose and treat health problems from chemical exposures - sharing the names of the chemicals is critical to making sure the patient gets the proper treatment.
  • Healthcare providers may need to warn others who could also have been exposed and/or notify the proper authorities.
  • Vague and confusing language in many of these laws coupled with the threat of lawsuits and potential for criminal liability for non-compliance can discourage medical professionals from treating people with potential exposures. In rural areas, with few healthcare providers, this can result in huge barriers for people who need medical care.

These barriers unnecessarily disrupt care and threaten the quality of the medical and public health services in communities living with the threats of fracking pollution. Corporate secrets should not trump people's health, and trade secret protections for chemicals used in fracking should be eliminated.

Playing politics with medical treatment has serious consequences. With fracking impacting more and more Americans, we need our decision-makers to start prioritizing people's health over the interests of a dangerous industry.

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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