Doctors fight "gag orders" over fracking chemicals
"When several unrelated patients visited McMurray, Pa.-based plastic surgeon Amy Paré, MD, she initially was unsure what to make of the bleeding, oozing legions covering their faces.
The wounds were not cancerous, but the inflammation was severe and becoming worse. Dr. Paré's suspicions grew when she learned that the patients lived near the same natural gas drilling site. Tests later found that the patients had phenol and hippuric acid in their urine, two contact irritants rarely found in humans. The patients improved after they stopped drinking water from their underground wells.
"Knowing what chemicals they had been exposed to would have sped up the process" of treating the patients, said Dr. Paré, who specializes in treating skin conditions.
How tough are state chemical disclosure rules?
But at the time, no official route existed for doctors to learn what chemicals patients may have been exposed to near drilling sites, information that remains protected as trade secrets unless lawmakers dictate otherwise. Under a new Pennsylvania law, natural gas companies must tell physicians the substances patients might have come into contact with. But doctors must sign confidentiality agreements promising they will use the information only for those patients' treatment.
More than a dozen states require firms to disclose chemicals used in fracking because of health concerns.
Some doctors say the agreements amount to gag orders that interfere with their ability to treat patients and to share information freely with colleagues and medical researchers. The conflict has led to a legal challenge by Pennsylvania nephrologist Alfonso Rodriguez, MD, against the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection. He claims that the law's doctor-contract provision is vague and violates physicians' First Amendment rights."