Crystalline silica, hydrofluoric acid and formaldehyde. Those are just three of the dozens of air toxic chemicals that oil companies have used thousands of times in southern California in just the past year.
The data has come to light thanks to new reporting rules adopted in 2013 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which now requires oil and gas well operators to disclose the chemicals they use in oil and gas operations. According to a recently released analysis of the first year’s worth of reported data, oil companies used 44 different air toxic chemicals more than 5,000 times in Los Angeles and Orange counties during the past 12 months. Crystalline silica, hydrofluoric acid and formaldehyde — all of which are considered harmful to human health — were among the most frequently used. Since reporting began in June 2013, companies have reported the use of more than 45 million pounds of air toxics at almost 500 fracking, acidizing and gravel packing operations in the two California counties. (Acidizing is the process of injecting a combination of acids and chemicals underground to clean a well or dissolve rock; gravel packing is a process of placing chemical-filled gravel into the well hole to act as a filter.)
“We understand the terrible health impacts caused by the chemicals being used to extract oil in Los Angeles and Orange counties,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, general counsel at Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, in a news release. “Given the massive volume of chemicals being used so close to where people live, work and go to school, there is significant likelihood that people will be harmed by these chemicals. We routinely see reports of leaks, accidents and injury associated with oil extraction.”
Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, conducted the chemical data analysis. Here are just a few of the unsettling findings as well as some of the health risks associated with the chemicals.
According to the analysis, oil and gas well operators used:
• more than 25 million pounds of crystalline silica, which is known to be harmful to skin, eyes, respiratory system, immune system and kidneys;
• more than 166,000 pounds of methanol, an endocrine disruptor and developmental inhibitor;
• more than 32,000 pounds of formaldehyde, which is harmful to skin, eyes, sensory organs, brain and nervous systems, and reproductive system;
• more than 69,000 pounds of 2-butoxy ethanol, which is harmful to a number of organs and systems, and is linked to liver cancer and adrenal tumors; and
• more than 5 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid, which is harmful to the reproductive and cardiovascular systems and can cause genetic mutations.
Moreover, the analysis reported that about 265 fracking, acidizing and gravel packing events happened within 1,500 feet of at least one hospital, preschool or residence. Children and the elderly may be particularly susceptible to air toxics. The analysis states:
These air toxics, which can be emitted before, during and after well stimulation, are endangering the health of nearby residents. In Los Angeles, the AllenCo oil facility has been cited for multiple air emission violations. The pollution has been linked to nosebleeds, headaches, breathing trouble and nausea suffered by nearby residents, leading to hundreds of complaints to (the South Coast Air Quality Management District). After AllenCo was forced to halt operations, the Los Angeles Times revealed that reports of illnesses had diminished significantly. Whether or not well stimulation is used, oil and gas operations are responsible for emitting air toxics throughout the process.
While the numbers in the analysis are worrisome on their own, they probably don’t account for all the chemicals being released. The analysis reported that operators withheld information in 5,050 instances. In claiming that some of the disclosures would jeopardize trade secrets, the companies only submitted vague descriptions to the air quality agency, such as “lubricant” or “mixture.”
“The pervasive and persistent use of these chemicals threatens to contaminate local air quality and put communities’ health and safety at risk,” the analysis concluded. “The reporting requirements have proven the need for immediate action to protect the public.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.