By Kevin Begos
PITTSBURGH — Some people are absolutely sure gas drilling threatens public health, while others are absolutely sure it doesn't.
Geisinger Health Systems is looking for more facts on the debate.
"Our concern is getting reliable data so we know what to do for our patients," said David Carey, director of Geisinger's Weis Center for Research in Danville, Pa.
Geisinger serves many patients who live in areas that have seen a recent boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The gas-rich formation thousands of feet underground has generated jobs, billions of dollars and concerns about possible environmental and public health impacts from thousands of new wells.
"There's a real need for reliable information for policymakers," Carey said, yet some of the debate on the issue has been more emotion-driven than science-driven.
"Lack of data has not led to a lack of opinion," Carey noted.
But with state and federal budgets under intense pressure, there hasn't been much money available for serious medical research. Then over the last year, executives at Geisinger realized they had a big head start.
"We have a very long history of caring for patients in this region," Carey said, noting the company serves 2.6 million patients and operates hospitals, clinics, and an insurance program in 44 north central and northeastern counties. That means they have vast troves of health-care data, concerning everything from cancer to car accidents to asthma attacks.
"We can map the clinical data in both space and in time," Carey said, meaning they can compare health in areas with gas drilling to similar areas where it isn't happening.