Patients Are Already Suffering From Tar Sands, Nurses Say

CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) speaks during a news conference with nurses about the health impact of tar sands oil production and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 13, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Brenda Prewitt has never seen an infant diagnosed with asthma, not once 26 years of pediatric nursing. Recently, however, she’s thinking that might change.

“We used to never diagnose asthma in kids under the age of two –never even see asthma-type symptoms under the age of two — and now we’re seeing that,” Prewitt, who works in Houston, Texas, told Climate Progress on Thursday. “Doctors don’t want to label somebody with that chronic disease so early in life until they know for sure.”

For the last three years, Prewitt has seen an unprecedented number of chronic lung-related diagnoses in children as young as one — something she has never seen before. The increase in symptoms, she says, is frightening. Doctors hold off on making a diagnosis until they can count how many times an attack has occurred, but initial signs are now sometimes starting as early as infancy. A wheeze here, a cough there — but no virus, no infection.

Prewitt, who started experiencing asthma symptoms herself when she moved to Texas, believes the increase is due to emissions coming from oil and gas refineries that currently surround the area. After all, she said, harmful airborne chemicals produced in oil refining are much higher in Houston than in any other city — in some cases up to 20 times higher, according to a 2006 study from Rice University. Children who live within two miles of the Houston ship channel, where the Keystone XL would come in, are also 56 percent more likely to get leukemia than those living more than 10 miles away, according to scientists at the University of Texas.

Because of the health impacts she says her city is already feeling from fossil fuel emissions, Prewitt is concerned that the approval of Keystone XL — which would bring Canadian tar sands oil down to refineries in nearby Texas cities — will only bring more harm to her community. She and four other nurses from National Nurses United expressed those concerns at a press conference held by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in Washington D.C. on Thursday, where they announced their organization would send a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for a comprehensive study on how the proposed pipeline would impact public health.

“We have seen what can happen with tar sands pollution and we feel like that’s an experience that we don’t need,” Kari Columbus, a nurse from Kansas City, said. “If you think health care costs are up and health care is an issue now, it can only get worse from here.”

Though the Northern leg of Keystone XL has not yet been approved, Americans have already seen what can happen to public health from tar sands pollution, the nurses said. The Mayflower oil spill in Arkansas in 2013, which spilled 210,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude oil, brought widespread dizziness, nausea, headaches, fatigue, nosebleeds, and bowel issues to those who lived near it. Rolanda Watson, a nurse from Chicago, spoke of a December 2013 event where her clinic had to be evacuated because of a cloud of petroleum coke — the black, sandy byproduct of tar sands that is generally stored in uncovered large piles. Since the piles appeared in Chicago, clouds of black dust have been swirling in the wind, and community members have complained of respiratory problems.

“[The clouds] are covering houses, picnic areas. Children can’t play outside, they can’t eat their food outside,” Watson said. “In our clinic, we saw more respiratory-related illnesses. Asthma. These particulates aggravate and can cause bronchitis — they can cause lung diseases. And these diseases will significantly decrease your chance to fight other infections.”

The nurses were flanked by Boxer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), who last month called for a public health study on Keystone XL after finding out about increased cancer rates in patients who live downstream of the Canadian tar sands. She was joined by Dr. John O’Connor, a primary care doctor in Canada who treats patients in the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan. O’Connor has drawn widespread attention among Canadian officials for alleging that his patients there have extremely high rates cancer, including a rare and incurable bile-duct cancer.

As Boxer and the EPW committee continue to call for a public health study, however, a decision on Keystone XL is expected to come from President Obama as early as May. Boxer said she had spoken with both Obama and Kerry and their staffs about conducting a study, but did not get any indication that it would be done.

“We keep sending them information and they are not going to tell me what they’re going to do,” Boxer said. “They’re just looking at everything.”