Negligent Behavior by Department of Public Health of Los Angeles County During Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Disaster - New Protocols Are Needed
Cancer InCytes Magazine
Volume 6, Issue 1, Summer 2018
September 14, 2018
In October of 2015, a pipe holding natural gas in the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility of Southern California burst, releasing 109,000 metric tons of methane gas and toxic chemicals into the air (California Air Resources Board, 2016). The blowout lasted four months before it could be capped (Walton et al., 2016). An estimated 80,000 people in the cities downwind of Aliso Canyon suffered health problems due to this gas blowout. Most severely affected among the cities within the San Fernando Valley were residents of Porter Ranch, which is located adjacent to the southern edge of Aliso Canyon.
During the four-month blowout, many residents of the San Fernando Valley were unaware of the danger. They suffered frequent migraines, chronic nosebleeds, loss of vision, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, severe skin rashes, stomach aches, and diarrhea (Elmahrek, 2016; personal communications). Medical clinics and hospitals in the region experienced a sudden increase in the number of patients exhibiting these symptoms. The sudden enrichment of a limited set of medical problems in a specific geographical region was highly suggestive of environmental exposure to toxins. The widespread sickness warranted an emergency public health response.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) was the governing agency responsible for protecting the residents of San Fernando Valley, but it's actions were confusing at the least and grossly negligent at the worst. After the gas blowout was capped four months after continuously spewing out toxic chemicals, LACDPH sent a memo to physicians in the San Fernando Valley on March 8, 2016 that included the following statements and instructions (Rangan, 2016).
Actions Requested of Providers
When evaluating patients presenting with mild headaches, gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms, or those with other non-specific complaints:
Look for alternative etiologies other than air contamination.
Avoid performing any toxicology tests; these are not recommended and are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients.
If no alternative etiology is found and there is concern regarding either ongoing or past environmental exposures, consult Dr. Cyrus Rangan, Director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment at [phone number omitted].
From a toxicology and public health perspective, the instructions from LACDPH are negligent and dangerous for multiple reasons.
1. Environmental toxins have latent effects that appear years after the initial exposure, meaning the diseases that they cause do not appear until years later. Benzene, one of the toxins in natural gas, causes myeloid leukemia and has a latent period of approximately 10 years (ACGIH, 2018). Thus, the instructions in the memo to not investigate the gas exposure as a reason for patients' illnesses because the blowout had recently been capped is mind boggling. Even in the absence of definitive toxicology tests that prove exposure to a toxin, routine laboratory procedures (i.e. blood analysis) should be done to document any abnormalities that can then be compared to future analyses.
2. Toxic chemicals can be deposited in the environment and reactivated to cause continued exposure. Included along with the methane gas were heavy metals that are known to be toxic to humans. A study sanctioned by the LACDPH found the following chemicals in the homes of Porter Ranch residents (LACDPH, 2016): aluminum, barium, iron, manganese, nickel, and vanadium. In a private study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Nordella (Nordella, 2017) examining heavy metals in hair samples from his patients from Porter Ranch, 94% of patients had uranium contamination, 60% had lithium contamination, and 30% had mercury contamination. Many victims of the gas blowout report that even though they had moved to a different city or state, just opening boxes that contain household items from Porter Ranch immediately induced symptoms such as nose bleeds, rashes, and migraines. Long-lived chemicals that can be transported by household items, such as clothing, in a cardboard box is indicative of toxins having been deposited in dust particles. If such a mechanism of deposition can sustain the existence of toxins in household items years after the blowout, what about the soil and dirt in the San Fernando Valley? How many and how much of the toxins are in the dirt that can be disturbed and rendered into airborne dust long after the blowout had been capped?
3. We now know -- three years later -- that the level of benzene, a known carcinogen that is linked to myeloid leukemia, was released at levels that were nearly 450,000 times higher than what is considered safe by the state of California (Glueck, 2018). The Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) set by California’s Department of Industrial Relations is 1 part per million (ppm) in an 8-hour period (Cal/OSHA, 2018). In a 2018 court deposition, an engineer for SoCal Gas was questioned on a document stating that benzene was released at a concentration of 220 ppm to 447 ppm, a fact not known to the public for three years (Glueck, 2018). The previous estimate from SoCal Gas (Domonoske, 2016), the company that operates the Aliso Canyon facility, was that benzene was only “slightly higher than background levels in just two samples, both on Nov. 10 . The suspect readings were 5.6 parts per billion in one gated development about a mile from the well and 3.7 parts per billion in the Porter Ranch Estates neighborhood of 1,100 homes.” The background level they were referring to was 0.5 ppm in the Los Angeles Area. Even with the loose estimates by SoCal Gas, LACDPH should have known that the latent effects of benzene don't arise immediately. Therefore, exposure to natural gas should be considered in the etiology of signs and symptoms exhibited by San Fernando Valley residents during that time.
4. The instructions in the memo state that physicians who have questions regarding whether the etiology of disease in their patients was due to the natural gas exposure should contact Dr. Cyrus Rangan, Director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment of LACDPH. Leaving aside the aforementioned reasons why Dr. Rangan’s memo was negligent, why would the LACDPH place upon one person to answer all questions from physicians in an entire region consisting of multiple cities? Even if Dr. Rangan had unlimited storage space in his phone's message box, this would be a logistical disaster during a state of emergency.
5. It is interesting to note that after LACDPH released this memo, it conducted a door-to-door survey of homes in the Porter Ranch area about health effects of the gas blowout (LACDPH, 2016b). After some time in the area, the surveyors began exhibiting medical problems very similar to those suffered by the residents (personal communications). These were the “mild” symptoms that the memo instructed health care providers to not attribute to toxins in natural gas.
The Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility is located within the zone of the Santa Susanna Fault. The seismic nature of this region is known to be unstable (Davis, 2017). Not surprisingly, Aliso Canyon has had multiple gas blowout disasters since 1995. It’s only a matter of time before this happens again. What protocols will LACDPH have in response to the next disaster? The public needs to know. The potential for catastrophic loss of life in the San Fernando Valley is real.
David H. Nguyen, PhD
Editor-in-Chief - Cancer InCytes Magazine
Chair, Environmental & Medical Fallout Task Force
David O. Carpenter, MD
Director - Institute for Health and the Environment
University at Albany-SUNY
James Yarr Wu, OD
President - Bring Sight Foundation
Peter Weiss-Penzias, PhD
Researcher - University of California, Santa Cruz
The authors of this article comprise an Environmental & Medical Fallout Task Force of scientists and physicians who create educational videos that help the poisoning victims of San Fernando Valley in Southern California understand their health problems.
ACGIH. (2018). “Documentation of the TLVs and BEIs.” ACGIH Worldwide(Cincinnati), 7th Ed.
Cal/OSHA. (2018). “Article 110. Regulated Carcinogens: §5218 Benzene.” The Index to the Cal/OSHA Regulations
California Air Resources Board. (October 21, 2016). “Aliso Canyon leak emitted 109,000 metric tons of methane.” Release Number 16-52.
Davis, Thomas L. (November 3, 2017). “Evaluating Fault Lines in Aliso Canyon.” Science358 (6363), 601.
Domonoske, Camila. (January 15, 2016). “Gas Company Understated Benzene Exposure From California Leak.” NPR
Elmahrek, Adam. (September 28, 2016). “L.A. County wants health impact study of Porter Ranch gas leak and Exide battery plant pollution.” Los Angeles Times
Glueck, Patty Crost. (July 14, 2018). “More Bad News for Residents Near Aliso Canyon.” Knock LA
LACDPH. (2016). “Time Critical Residential Indoor Environmental Sampling Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Incident Porter Ranch Community, Los Angeles, California.”
LACDPH. (March 13, 2016b). “ALISO CANYON GAS LEAK Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER).”
Nordella, Jeffrey. (March 29, 2018). “Presentation About Hair Analysis Study of Porter Ranch Residents.” Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council Townhall Meeting.
Rangan, Cyrus. (March 8, 2016). "Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak Resolution and Follow-up." Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Walton, Alice; Branson-Potts, Haily; Sahagun, Louis. (February 18, 2016). “Porter Ranch gas leak permanently capped, officials say.” Los Angeles Times