In the Pennsylvania case pointed out by industry spokesman Chris Tucker, for example, a woman complained for years of symptoms similar to Wallace-Babb's. She alleged that drilling activities had contaminated her water with barium. She spoke at anti-drilling rallies and environmental groups used her case. But when Pennsylvania officials investigated, they found her intense exposure to barium hadn't come from drilling—it was a natural seepage into her well.
Teitelbaum says that collecting measurements of contaminants in the air and water is an essential first step. But he said epidemiologists then set out to track an "exposure pathway," comparing people exposed to pollutants to people not exposed and then identifying how the exposure occurred. No such scientific protocol has been developed to examine the gas fields. Without one, the more common respiratory and skin ailments are increasingly accepted as being related to pollution, Teitelbaum said. But whether the more serious symptoms have anything to do with drilling is a complete unknown. "You hear and see everything you can possibly imagine, from miscarriages to multiple sclerosis to brain tumors," he said. "There is no way to document whether those things are real or not real."
That's why a health registry—a database to cross reference patterns of symptoms and locations where they occur with water and air tests—is so important, he said. Without this context, complaints from residents may not be taken seriously by doctors or environment officials, partly because people respond to chemical exposures differently. Their symptoms can vary widely and can be difficult to recognize.
"If someone comes in and just says I can't think straight, or I'm really tired or I have headaches, that's not measureable," said Dr. Kendall Gerdes, a Denver-based physician who specializes in ecological exposure cases and has seen a number of patients complaining about the gas patch. "Therefore it's considered psychosomatic by most doctors' training."
Gerdes said many of the symptoms roughly fit what ecological-disorder specialists in ecological disorders call multiple chemical sensitivity. It's a sort of catch-all to explain intense reactions to chemical compounds ranging from skin maladies to nerve damage.
According to Gerdes, those predisposed to chemical sensitivity are likely to have the most pronounced reactions to chemical exposures in drilling areas. "Characteristically that person will know they can't be around fresh paint, or can't wear perfume," he said. "So to me, it is an unrecognized vulnerability that, when put together with significant exposures, is enough to cause troubles."
The more people with chemical sensitivity are exposed, the more sensitized they get, Gerdes said. Before Susan Wallace-Babb passed out in the field by her truck, she had felt wooziness and headaches. In the weeks after, she couldn't bear the slightest exposure in places where she had previously felt safe.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night in pain and vomiting and so sick I could barely make it to the bathroom," she said. "And that was with the house closed."
Gerdes and others experts say that whatever affected Susan Wallace-Babb likely also affected others in her community, but they may not have exhibited the same symptoms or reacted as quickly.
For all the mysteries surrounding Wallace-Babb's condition, one thing was clear: When she was away from home, she felt better. When she returned, her symptoms worsened. "That's probably the clearest association you can make," Gerdes said. "When it happens several different times there is a correlation."
Wallace-Babb reluctantly decided to move.
"My body could not rid itself of the toxins," Wallace-Babb said. Her doctor warned her that if she didn't leave, she would never get better. "I thought gosh, there is my dream house. There is my dream all gone and what am I going to do?"