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Fossil Fuel Industry Gives California Communities a Breath of Toxic Air: Report

Environmental study finds dozens of airborne pollutants, many untested, in two counties

Oil well pump jacks in Lost Hills, California, one of the communities studied in the report. (Photo: Richard Masoner/flickr/cc)

Oil and gas wells in California are releasing dozens of pollutants into the air in at least two counties, exposing residents to numerous toxins and unknown effects, a report by an environmental watchdog published Thursday has found.

As one of the country's largest oil producers, California is home to thousands of oil wells, with 5.4 million people—or 14 percent of the state's population—living within one mile of a well. Those communities are often impoverished and suffer from health defects and a lack of access to clean water, often left with "no choice in where they live, and no voice in the decision-making processes that affect their daily lives," the report by Earthworks states.

Yet fossil fuel companies continue to prioritize profit over public health, even as scientific research continues to link exposure to emissions to birth defects, chronic health problems, and other adverse effects, according to the report, titled Californians at Risk: An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities (pdf).

There is a "disturbing lack of data on health effects of oil and gas production in California," author Jhon Arbelaez said on Thursday.

The report focused on the communities of Upper Ojai in Ventura County and Lost Hills in Kern County. Researchers collected air samples and used infrared cameras to record unseen pollution being released into the air from oil and gas development facilities in those areas.

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


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In Upper Ojai, the results from those tests found the presence of methane, acetone, propane, and ethanol, along with dichlorodifluoromethane, which can cause cardiac arrest and asphyxia, and trichlorofluoromethane, which can cause toxic necrosis. Lost Hills returned similar findings—as well as compound that researchers could not identify.

"The detected compounds are known to cause a variety of health effects, ranging from headaches and dizziness, to vomiting and throat irritation," the report states. "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."

Likewise, 92 percent of residents in Lost Hills reported experiencing odors like "petroleum, burning oil, rotten eggs, chemicals, chlorine or bleach, a sweet smell, sewage, and ammonia," with 82 percent saying those odors occurred every day.

The researchers did come up against some limitations. Many of the facilities which were identified as pollutants were located on private properties, which made them inaccessible, and the study lacked a control group as it did not test air quality in communities where fossil fuel development projects were not stationed. However, the report states, the data "served to obtain initial exploratory information for follow up studies," and was not meant "to obtain a representative sample nor to establish statistical validity."

"As a Registered Nurse I acknowledge the limitations of the study but this only provides a stronger argument for the state to invest in rigorous, unbiased health impact research," said Lucinda Wasson, retired Director of Public Health Nursing for Kern County. "The California Department of Public Health, whose first priority is to protect Californians' health, should be the state agency examining the health threats posed by oil and gas pollution. That California has instead relied only upon DOGGR, the agency charged with encouraging oil and gas development, speaks volumes about where the state's priorities are regarding the health impacts of oil and gas recovery."

With those caveats in mind, the report concluded: "Without a proper understanding of these issues, and ways to solve them, problems will continue to affect not only California’s most vulnerable communities, but communities across all demographics."

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