West Virginia University's Department of Community Medicine is working with the Department of Energy on a new way to monitor health effects from air quality near Marcellus Shale drilling sites.

"We're just beginning, really, to find out what comes from a gas drilling site like this," said Dr. Michael McCawley, a professor in the Department of Community Medicine. "We don't really know what the levels are or if, in fact, the levels are high enough to cause any concern anywhere around."

The new monitors measure the levels of dust, other particulates, and gases like methane which have been linked to cancer and respiratory problems.

"Later on, looking down the line at health effects, we don't want to be behind the curve in knowing what's happening," McCawley said.

The monitors are portable and designed to be set up in a ring around drilling site to see what just what is coming from the site and what isn't.

"Truck traffic from an interstate for example could put up the same volatile organic compounds that you might see from a well site. So you want to be able to distinguish what's coming onto the site versus what's leaving it.

McCawley's team and the DOE will test the system at a drilling site in Washington, Pa. He hopes to see the system in action in West Virginia this year and plans to publish the blueprints so regulators, gas companies, or even community members could build one.

The air quality data will all be public, to eliminate at least one area of contention between drillers and residents.

"The community can watch and see what's happening as well when these instruments are used," McCawley said, "because they will transmit data online to a web site from a base station so both the community and the drillers can communicate better about what's actually happening."

McCawley said this should build up trust between communities and drilling companies.

"Nobody's guessing, nobody's saying, we saw this or we think we heard about this or whatever's happening. We have the data to show what's going on. Now we think that will improve communications between the two groups and hopefully improve trust," he said. "If a well is run correctly, there should be nothing to fear from these will site."

The same type of system can also be used measure other effects of the industry on communities, such as road noise.