A farmer works near a gas extraction well in Washington County, PA. Photo by Sara Gillooly, Tyler Rubright, Samantha Malone and FracTracker Alliance.

As associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, Dr. Jill Kriesky is all too familiar with the health problems associated with living near an oil or gas drilling site. Founded in 2012, her McMurray-based organization works with people convinced that shale gas developmentmore commonly known as frackinghas made them sick.

“There is a whole range of symptoms,” says Kriesky, who rattles off examples such as respiratory conditions, headaches, nose bleeds, sinus troubles, skin rashes and dizziness.

She also points out how a person’s psychological well-being can be affected as their daily life becomes increasingly disturbed by gas and oil extraction, which can lead to a lack of sleep and stress-related gastrointestinal issues. “Some of that relates to drilling because that process can go on around the clock and includes a lot of truck traffic and lights at night which, if done close to your house, is incredibly disruptive,” she says.

But while they regularly hear about the immediate, short-term symptoms, they had no way of tracking the serious long-term health impacts of fracking, a practice notorious for using toxic carcinogens such as benzene and toluene. So they recently launched the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry, the first-ever database showing the health impacts of fracking.

Built through a partnership with the Genetic Alliance, the registry welcomes United States citizens living, working, or attending school within five miles of shale gas development to enroll. It’s open to all eligible participants regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.

The information gathered will serve as an asset to researchers studying the relationship between poor health and fracking and will help public officials understand the scope and size of the problem.

“A lot of times people will go to their state legislators or governors and say, ‘I’ve lived near this stuff and I’m sick,’ and the response is, ‘Well, that’s one anecdote,’” says Kriesky. “We’re hoping that by allowing people to gather all of their impact information in one place, policymakers are going to see that it’s more than one anecdoteit’s a phenomenon that needs to be addressed.”

The Environmental Health Project will also use the registry to further educate medical professionals on how to recognize fracking-related illnesses in patients.

To those concerned about privacy, all information is confidential and unavailable to the public. Kriesky assures that enrollees are also given a lot of control over how their data is used. When submitting your information, you can choose to “de-identify” your data, meaning that the project and researchers will see your environmental exposures and symptoms, but not your name or contact information.

Kriesky believes the site will show what’s going on in areas like Washington County, home to the Environmental Health Project’s headquarters and an estimated 1,500-1,700 natural gas wells.

“There’s been a lot of activity here, as well as in Greene County and Fayette County,” says Kriesky, adding that the Environmental Health Project also sees a lot of clients from Westmoreland and Butler County, where shale development is expanding.

According to a map compiled by StateImpact Pennsylvania, Allegheny County currently has 63 active wells.

Kriesky says the registry will remain online for the foreseeable future.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.