Judge defeats challenge to ‘medical gag order’ on health risks from fracking

A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania.(Reuters / Les Stone)
Pennsylvania authorities have denied a doctor the right to challenge a so-called “medical gag rule” that prevents him and other physicians from warning the public about the health dangers associated with fracking.

Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez of Dallas, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the state last year, asserting that Act 13 of 2012 forces medical professionals to enter “a vague confidentiality agreement” that prevents them from having a completely honest dialogue with patients.

Hydraulic fracking involves drilling through underground shale rock with the help of chemicals - many of them toxic - to release natural gas. Earlier this month, a research team out of Duke University examined Pennsylvania wastewater and found what they described as “alarmingly” high levels of radioactivity, salts, metals, and other potentially harmful sediments.

Yet the “medical gag rule” forbids doctors like Rodriguez from going into depth about the health problems that chemicals from fracking can cause. Critics have said the bill’s passage, and the court’s refusal to grant Dr. Rodriguez the right to speak freely with his patients, is an indication of just how entrenched the oil and gas lobby is in state politics.

Rodriguez specializes in renal diseases, hypertension, and advanced diabetes. He “has recently treated patients directly exposed to high-volume hydraulic fracturing fluid as the result of well blowouts,” including a patient “with a complicated diagnosis with low platelets, anemia, rash and acute renal failure that required extensive hemodialysis and exposure to chemotherapeutic agents,” the complaint stated, as quoted by Courthouse News.

For fulfilling his true responsibility as a doctor, though, Rodriguez allegedly risks violating the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics, an infraction that could cost him his medical license.

That may well happen, because the state requires professional healthcare providers “to enter into, upon request by gas drilling company or vendor, a vague confidentiality agreement to maintain the specific identity any amount of any chemicals claimed to be a trade secret by a gas drilling company and/or its vendor as a condition precedent to receiving such information deemed unnecessary to provide competent medical treatment to plaintiff’s patient,” according to the complaint.

Despite Rodriguez’s complaint that the provision is a violation of his First and 14th Amendment rights, and multiple briefs filed by medical associations on his behalf, a federal judge dismissed the suit upon deciding the issue was “too conjectural” to stand.

Although plaintiff alleges that he requires the kind of information contemplated under the act for the treatment of his patients, he does not allege that he has been in a situation where he needed or attempted to obtain such information, despite the fact that he alleges that he has treated patients injured by hydraulic fracturing fluid in the past,” wrote Judge A. Richard Caputo. “Similarly, plaintiff does not allege that he has been in a position where he was required to agree to any sort of confidentiality agreement under the act."

The decision goes on to state that any attempt Rodriguez made to notify his patients of Act 13’s impact were “merely a prophylactic measure to ease his fears of potential future harm.”