This blog was coauthored with Rosanna Esparza of Clean Water Action California.
When we began research for this report nearly a year ago, we discovered a disturbing lack of data specific to California on the health effects from oil & gas in our state. With a production of nearly 200 million barrels of oil in 2013 alone, this lack of data raises serious questions about our state’s priorities when it comes to protecting the health of its citizens.
We examined two communities. Our analysis found that residents living along with oil & gas production in Lost Hills (Kern County), and Upper Ojai (Ventura County), are at increased risk for health impacts from exposure to oil and gas air emissions.
Californians at Risk: An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities recorded and analyzed oil and gas air pollution using specially tuned infrared video – the same technology that companies and regulators use to detect leaks. By using a multi-faceted approach, we were able to show that Upper Ojai and Lost Hills are being exposed to air pollution associated with oil & gas development. The FLIR camera allowed us to detect invisible-to-the-naked-eye emissions from processing facilities, wells, storage tanks, and unlined evaporation pits.
Air samples from both communities revealed the presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, such as acetone, hexane, isoprene, and acetaldehyde. Sample results also revealed the presence of an additional 11 compounds for which data is not available, such as pentane, and dodecane. Additionally, sampling revealed the presence of a compound that could not be identified by the lab. Some of the detected compounds are known carcinogens, and can affect the nervous and reproductive systems.
In addition to filming using the FLIR, and collection of air samples, we engaged residents of Lost Hills and Upper Ojai in community-led research to challenge the notion that outside researchers are all-knowing experts, and residents are know-nothing research subjects. Our roles were sometimes as participant-observers, and other times observers-as-participants. The surveys helped us determine that both communities suffer from a variety negative health effects, including, but not limited to: burning eyes, throat irritation, increased fatigue, loss of memory, nosebleeds, headaches, and digestive issues, among others. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to air emissions from oil & gas development.
This data raises serious questions about what chemicals California residents are being exposed to, and at what levels. Unfortunately, these questions don’t presently have answers. That’s because agencies charged with proteecting the public health, including the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in Kern County, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, in Ventura County, and the California Department of Public Health have failed to adequately monitor the oil industry, or the effects from toxic air emissions on public health. This failure is highlighted by the fact that our health survey, using an infrared camera commonly employed by industry to detect oil and gas air pollution, is the first of its kind in California by anyone.
The 2014 State of the Air report by the American Lung Association found that 77% of Californians live in areas that received a failing grade for at least one pollutant. Fresno, Kings, and Kern counties rank among the 5 counties with the worst air pollution in the country. Air pollution from oil and gas is a part of the problem, perhaps a large part, yet local air districts do not treat oil and gas pollution as a public health issue.
Facts do not cease to exist because they are disbelieved. But it sure makes it harder to address those facts. Perhaps that’s why the oil and gas industry continuously challenges the notion that our friends, our children, and our communities living near oil and gas development are being exposed to harmful pollution. And industry has been effective in doing so. Historically, the oil industry has received preferential treatment (in California and around the United States), and is allowed to pollute our air and water based in part on its assurances that the facts should be disbelieved. Hopefully our study will make that impossible going forward.
Our elected officials and regulatory agencies must learn that nothing in the world is more dangerous than willful ignorance. The California Department of Public Health, whose purpose is to protect Californians health and not encourage the development of oil and gas like DOGGR (which is charged with regulating the oil and gas industry), needs to examine the health threats posed by oil and gas polluters. It’s time for the people of the State of California to face facts and say, ya basta! This is a public health issue, and we are all health advocates. The danger and ignorance about risks to our health needs to end today.