Another Doctor Gag Rule

Before I was a nurse, I was an Emergency Medical Technician, and later, the OSHA nurse in one of my jobs.

One day I was working in the community, and asked to deal with a situation. A man who lived in a building thought he was exposed to some floor-stripping chemicals used in a renovation. The man was a veteran who suffered from terrible migraines and he had to avoid noise and fumes. He wanted to know what chemicals he was smelling in the hallway, so he could talk to his doctor. Everyone was hesitating, possibly worried about liability.

It seemed simple enough to me. I said there had to be a Material Safety Data Sheet as OSHA required. So–give it to him.

I remember the look of gratitude on the man’s face, and I was sorry he even had to ask more than once for what was a simple, reasonable and just request. I had assumed that it was a settled legal precedent that public safety is more important than institutional or corporate immunity from consequences.

Of course, I was wrong about that. Corporations can get away with wiping out entire towns. But Pennsylvania takes it to a whole new level. Never mind no MSDS or OSHA, they have passed a doctor gag rule that can financially ruin any doctor who discloses the names of the chemicals that are poisoning their patients. Fracking– mining for natural gas, is a dirty process.

The law grants physicians access to information about trade-secret chemicals used in natural gas drilling. Doctors say they need to know what’s in those formulas in order to treat patients who may have been exposed to the chemicals.

But the new law also says that doctors can’t tell anyone else — not even other doctors — what’s in those formulas. It’s being called the “doctor gag rule.”

Talk about an industry-friendly law. A mining company has the right to release chemicals into the air and water, but a doctor can lose everything if she tells her patients what they were exposed to…

Plastic surgeon Amy Pare practices in suburban Pittsburgh where she does reconstructive surgeries and deals with a lot of skin issues. She tells me about one case, a family who brought in a boy with strange skin lesions.

“Their son is quite ill — has had lethargy, nosebleeds,” Pare says. “He’s had liver damage. I don’t know if it’s due to exposure.”

The family lived near natural gas drilling activity, and there was some concern that the boy may have been exposed to some of the chemicals being used. Producing natural gas is a pretty industrial process and gives off a lot of fumes. It uses a lot of chemicals to open wells to get the gas flowing.

Pare’s first step was to figure out what chemicals the drillers were using. But that information isn’t easy to get. In this case, Pare says, the patient’s family had a good lawyer who helped them find out what kind of chemicals the gas company was using.

“If I don’t know what [patients] have been exposed to, how do I find the antidote? We’re definitely not clairvoyant,” she says.

Someone has to stand up for public health, even when corporations claim that ‘proprietary trade secrets’ are at risk. We’re not talking about the Colonel’s secret recipe here, we’re talking about chemicals that go into the air and water.

A gag-rule so severe is a disincentive for doctors to care for their patients.

It’s better if the law creates a disincentive for mining corporations that use dangerous chemicals.

Or maybe the chemicals are harmless, like they claim?

I remember that the man who asked for the MSDS sheet was grateful to get it and we heard no more about it. Take the gag off the doctors and shine some light on industry. Sunlight is healthy.