Oil And Gas Production Is Exposing Californians To At Least 15 Different Kinds Of Pollutants

CREDIT: Earthworks

Pump jacks border a cotton field in Kern County, CA.

Pump jacks border a cotton field in Kern County, CA.

Pump jacks border a cotton field in Kern County, CA.

CREDIT: Earthworks

Two communities in California are being exposed to at least 15 different kinds of pollutants from oil and gas development, according to a new report. And experts don’t yet know how the pollution is affecting residents’ health.

The report, published Thursday by environmental group Earthworks, used infrared cameras to record pollution coming out of oil and gas facilities in Upper Ojai in Ventura County, CA and and Lost Hills in Kern County, CA. The infrared camera made it possible for researchers to see pollution being emitted from the facilities that is typically invisible.

Emissions, circled in blue, observed from a processing facility in the Lost Hills oil field, with the aid of the FLIR infrared camera.

Emissions, circled in blue, observed from a processing facility in the Lost Hills oil field, with the aid of the FLIR infrared

CREDIT: Earthworks

The researchers also collected air samples from each site. Samples from the Upper Ojai site tested positive for multiple pollutants, including methane, dichlorodifluoromethane, trichlorofluoromethane, propane, isobutene, and ethanol. The Lost Hills samples also tested positive for similar pollutants, and also included a compound that researchers couldn’t identify.

Some of the compounds detected in the samples, the report notes, “are known to cause a variety of health effects, ranging from headaches and dizziness, to vomiting and throat irritation. Some compounds are known carcinogens, and can affect the nervous and reproductive systems. Some compounds have not been studied at all, meaning that there is no way to know how they will affect public health.” In all, 15 compounds that are known to impact human health were detected, as well as 11 compounds that had no health data.

More research is needed, the report’s authors write, to determine how exposure to these pollutants is affecting residents who live nearby these facilities. Earthworks recommends that California’s Department of Public Health — not the oil and gas industry — should undertake this research. This would be similar to New York state’s examination of the possible health and environmental impacts of fracking.

Jhon Arbelaez, the report’s lead author, said on a press call Thursday that there’s a “disturbing lack of data on health effects of oil and gas production in California,” one that “raises questions” about the state’s public health priorities.

The report notes that the problem of exposure to emissions from oil and gas production in California isn’t limited to Kern and Ventura counties. About 5.4 million people in the state — 14 percent of the total population — live within one mile of an oil or gas well, and that 1.8 million of these people live in communities “suffering from environmental justice issues.” But though there’s been some research in other states about the impacts of living near an oil or gas well — one study from Pennsylvania, for instance, found that living near natural gas wells increases a person’s chance of reporting respiratory illnesses and skin conditions — there’s been few such studies in California.

Rosanna Esparza, Kern County Organizer for Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, said on the call that she hopes this report will inspire public officials to make studying the possible health impacts of oil and gas development more of a priority. Lucinda Wasson, a nurse and the retired Director of Public Health Nursing for Kern County, agreed.

“I was very startled in the beginning to see that there really is no data specific to California on this,” Wasson said. “For a state that produces so much oil a year…it’s very startling that state hasn’t looked into this in the past.”

The researchers did their own surveys of residents in both counties, to see whether they had experienced health impacts before. In Lost Hills, 92.3 percent of people who responded to the survey reported experiencing odors in their homes or communities, including “petroleum, burning oil, rotten eggs, chemicals, chlorine or bleach, a sweet smell, sewage, and ammonia.” When these odors were present, 63 percent of residents said they got a headache, and 37 percent of them said they experienced nausea and dizziness. Residents also reported experiencing skin conditions, nosebleeds, sinus problems and other health impacts. Because agriculture is a major employer in Lost Hills, however, many residents reported being exposed to other chemicals as well: 59 percent said they were exposed to things like pesticides and other ag-related chemicals.

The authors did note in the report that there were limitations to their research. The researchers didn’t take samples from communities where oil and gas development didn’t occur, so they didn’t have a control group to which they could compare their results in Kern and Ventura counties. The report also noted that the survey data from county residents was meant to provide a starting point for future research — it “was not meant to obtain a representative sample nor to establish statistical validity.”