The gas leak crisis that became a chronic disaster may have finally been resolved by Southern California Gas Company’s engineers, but it is far from over for the residents of Porter Ranch. Serious questions remain about long-term health effects. While thousands relocated, many stayed in Porter Ranch and nearby communities, breathing in a complex mixture of methane, ethane, organic compounds, and trace amounts of toxic gases and carcinogens. “I have bills to pay,” said one woman who wanted to move but felt tied to her job at a busy medical office in Northridge. The size and intensity of the gas leak in Aliso Canyon that began on October 23, 2015 was described as “enormous” and “California’s biggest contributor to climate change.” One blogger for the Union of Concerned Scientists described it as “INSANE”. More than two million tons of methane were spewed into the air over the San Fernando Valley. “People say methane is not a health problem, but that’s misleading,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental activist known for her work in Mississippi’s Cancer Alley, a corridor of more than 150 industrial facilities along the Mississippi River. “It’s all the other chemicals in natural gas that are harmful.” According to Subra, residents whose symptoms were severe and persistent are at greatest risk. Some people, she said, “could be sick from this for a very long time.”
The fact that the leak persisted for more than three months is problematic, said Subra, who was awarded a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ for her work helping poor communities impacted by environmental disasters. Some residents’ health may have “degraded” to the point that they “may not fully recover,” said Subra.
Gas Leak: What It’s Like On The Inside
Residents of Porter Ranch, Northridge and Chatsworth have been told that they are being sickened by non-toxic odorants added to natural gas, and that their symptoms will clear up when the leak is stopped. A fact sheet released by Los Angeles County explains that symptoms caused by noxious odorants “will generally go away once the odor exposure has stopped.” The odorants at issue are mercaptans, or tert-butyl mercaptans (TBMs). These natural sulfur compounds smell like rotten eggs and are used as scent markers to alert the human nose to the presence of natural gas in the air. Many locals have reported a range of distressing, flu-like symptoms. These include headaches, respiratory problems, nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, rashes, and fatigue, most of which are associated with exposure to TBMs. Dogs, cats, horses, and other animals have been coughing and vomiting, according to residents. And Dr. David Smith of Northridge Veterinary Center has reported an increasing number of dogs and cats suffering from inflamed eyes, nosebleeds, and vomiting. Inside Climate News explains that mercaptans “often irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system.” Physician and Porter Ranch resident Dr. Brooks Michaels spoke at a public meeting on December 28, 2015 in Porter Ranch, where he castigated representatives of SoCal Gas for trying to downplay the negative health effects of the leak. Michaels described the effects: “It’s in your head, it’s in your ears, it’s in your nose, it’s in your throat, and it’s in your chest.” He also said, “If you have a chance to relocate, do it now.” The Los Angeles Times sent out a questionnaire asking people who live near the gas leak to describe their current health problems. Here are two typical answers: “On several occasions, all of a sudden, I have felt like I need to just throw up, out of nowhere. Also, my 10-year-old has complained of being dizzy, and she has never complained of that. We live in Chatsworth, less than five miles from the leak.” – Kristina Zitkovich” “Wife – nausea, kids – headaches and throwing up, and myself – my first nosebleed since I was a kid. All out of nowhere.” – David Duran There’s no question that this gas leak has affected us all. The staggering quantity of methane being released will harm the climate for decades to come. And while no one knows the degree to which the air quality of all of Los Angeles County has been affected by the leak, those closest to the Aliso Canyon leak have the most at stake.
Dispute Of Long-Term Effects
Ironically, both SoCal Gas and county health officials have insisted that residents’ symptoms will vanish when the air clears. “Exposures to these chemicals are generally not expected to lead to permanent or long-term health problems,” the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health vouched. Not everyone agrees. Activist and attorney Erin Brockovich met with residents of Porter Ranch in December of 2015 and has advocated for expanded air monitoring at more locations. She has raised critical awareness of the dangerous contaminants plaguing residents who have been exposed since the leak began. Brockovich has also said that not enough has been done to assess the potential long-term side effects of benzene and radon, carcinogens commonly found in natural gas. Such an assessment has to be considered in a larger context, said Subra, specifically “the cumulative impact of all the chemicals that people there are being exposed to.” According to Inside Climate News, “the Aliso Canyon gas contains trace amounts of benzene, toluene, and other toxic gases, which can cause symptoms similar to those reported by residents.” However, chemical reports show that “none of the gases exceed California’s public exposure guidelines.” Unremarkable test results did little to assuage residents. Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, said his cat was experiencing nosebleeds and began vomiting immediately after the leak started, stopping only after the family left their Porter Ranch home, traveled 20 miles and checked into a hotel in Burbank. As soon as Pakucko and his cat returned to his home office, the cat’s nose bleeds returned.
Questions Hanging In The Polluted Air
Unfortunately, most of the research on the effects of mercaptans deals with short-term exposure, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. In general, there is “very little data on health effects of the odorant chemicals beyond the physiological response to the odor,” the EDF reports. Conventional wisdom says that people who smell mercaptans do not stick around long enough to get really sick. But is that what actually happened? “People are not expected to be subjected to them for very long, and we need to understand better what the impact might be when exposures occur for a longer period of time,” concludes the EDF. Now that the leaky well at Aliso Canyon has been temporarily capped, residents say the gas smell is gone, and they are hopeful they can return to their homes without getting sick. “It’s really hard to trust anybody right now,” Chatsworth resident Amy Masliah told the Los Angeles Times. “Once they confirm that the air is clean enough for us to go back to our home, that my home is not contaminated, then I will feel much better.”