Last updated: March 16. 2013 7:00PM - 1107 Views

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THE PHRASE better late than never comes to mind, but it's still better.

News of a large-scale regional study on the medical impact of Marcellus Shale gas drilling may seem a tad past due, considering how robust drilling has been in parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania, but any third-party scrutiny is welcome. And to have that review conducted by medical professionals is doubly appreciated.

As noted in Tuesday's edition of The Times Leader, Geisinger Health System, Guthrie Health System of Sayre and Susquehanna Health of Williamsport have teamed to collect and analyze health data across a large swath of the state that includes areas both heavily drilled and scarcely touched by the Marcellus Shale gas boom.

Guthrie CEO Joseph Scopelliti may have uttered a mouthful of jargon when he said Our aim is to create a cross-disciplinary and sharable repository of data on environmental exposures, health outcomes and community impacts, but in the complex world of industrial damage to human health, that's pretty much what is needed.

Fracking experts dispute the cause and effect of even seemingly obvious changes such as increased methane in drinking water. There surely will be greater dispute if, over time, the incidence of certain medical conditions – such as asthma – rise in drilling areas. Science has shown that settling such debates can best be done through extensive data collected over a wide geographical area over an extended period.

This country has a long and sad history of occupations that caused fatal and debilitating conditions for years before industry leaders conceded the need for greater worker protection: Coal mining and black lung, insulation and asbestosis, Beryllium and berylliosis, uranium and radiation poisoning. It took many years and a lot of sick people before the barons and magnates making fat profits conceded culpability, and the delays were always fed by a lack of concrete data proving the link between what they did and any illnesses.

Yes, such a study arguably should have been launched a few years ago, when the Marcellus gas industry was at its most nascent and a more accurate baseline could have been established. But these three partners likely have enough data to backfill any gaps with reasonable accuracy and certainly can call on other health groups to help if an analysis requires it.

Kudos to Geisinger, Guthrie and Susquehanna for stepping up to this plate, and to the Degenstein Foundation for funding the project with a generous grant. Longtime residents of this area have a deep and deeply justified distrust of big industry promising safe exploitation of natural resources.

This study may not fully ease those concerns, but it is a step in the right direction.

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