A brave parent stepped forward to talk to The Scientific Parent about the Porter Ranch gas leak, and asked that he remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation against his family. Here is his story.
I am part of one of the 3,000 families displaced by the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) leak in Porter Ranch, but I consider my family lucky, because we’re finally safe. The latest reports say that an additional 3,000 more families are waiting to leave the area, and are still living in a zone that’s being called the biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Notice I say leave, not evacuate. I’ll get back to that.
On Oct 23, 2015, SoCalGas announced that their Aliso Canyon Storage Facility was leaking a combination of methane and mercaptan gases into my community, which is in Los Angeles, California. Methane is a natural gas. Mercaptan is the chemical the gas companies add to make it smell so people are warned when there’s a gas leak in their home.
At the time, they said the leak shouldn’t affect us, and at that point we didn’t know that symptoms of exposure to those gases are headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination. If we had, we would have realized that my family had been experiencing these symptoms for some time.
For weeks, our 3-and-a-half-year-old son, was lethargic and didn’t have his usual energy to do things. What normal three year old isn’t constantly running around and into things? My wife was complaining about nausea, and that her breathing was short and challenging. I had headaches every day when I came home from work. We never thought any of those things were related.
When Concerns Turned To Fear
While our own symptoms hadn’t raised any alarm bells, we knew something was wrong just before Thanksgiving, about one month after the announcement. In a short span of time, my previously healthy little girl (just 10 month old) had two nosebleeds, showed signs of shortness of breath, and one night her body began violently twitching. It was an alarming hard twitch-jolt nearly every minute for about 30 minutes, and through it all, she seemed disoriented.
We called the ER right away and they told us to bring her in. Before we left we called a doctor family member to check in. We learned that ER wouldn’t be able to do much for seizures, unless it’s a grand mal, and based on what we were describing she ruled that out. We weighed our options and erred on the side of her health as the convulsions had stopped and we didn’t take her to the ER that night. After all, you don’t take a baby to the ER if you can avoid it, because it’s loaded with sick people.
Here we were with our baby, who was suffering for reasons we couldn’t understand, and we felt scared, helpless, and without answers. As a parent, it is your job to not feel any of those things, to protect your children, and have answers for them. But we didn’t have any answers, for her or for ourselves.
The next morning, we took her in. And after a bunch of tests and blood work, they said that nothing was wrong with
her. The doctor recommended that we take her out of Porter Ranch as a test because there were so many variables that could cause the issue, and her thought was, take out the one big variable (her environment) and see what happens.
As a parent of a new baby, you don’t always know what’s going on, because you’re just discovering their body and who they are. So in my mind, her symptoms were very concerning and going to the doctor was more investigative work, and moving out wasn’t necessarily a final solution. After all, the Department of Health and SoCalGas both said that everything was safe, and that no action was required for residents living in the affected area.
Just to be sure, when we returned home after the appointment, I called Poison Control and the CDC and the representatives I both spoke to indicated that there can be other gases being expelled from these gas lines that weren’t being mentioned publicly at that time, such as benzene and radon.
So, we moved out the next day. And everything went away.
No nosebleeds, no twitches, in my toddler. No shortness of breath or lethargy for the rest of the family.
By then I had amassed enough information to decide that I wasn’t about to use my wife or kids as guinea pigs and return to our home, so we made the move permanent. Now one month later? My wife has no symptoms. I have no symptoms. My son is back to normal. And my little girl is perfectly fine.
But every time we go back to the house to get mail, water plants? A mere 20 minutes in, all of the symptoms come back.
What I’ve Learned
Speaking to the agencies and doing my own research, I learned that the long-term effects of all four of the gases on developing kids hasn’t been tested, i.e. studies to assess the impacts on their growing brains and bodies haven’t been comprehensively done.
I did learn that in high concentrations of methane and mercaptan, the worst case scenario is asphyxiation, and the risks are higher for children as they’re closer to the ground (the gas is heavier than air), and they have more surface area in their lungs compared to their bodies, versus an adult. For adults, our bodies are big enough to deal with it, so it is a different situation for us. However…if there are indeed carcinogenic gases that are also being released, like the benzene and radon, they are proven to cause cancer in long-term exposure.
As for kids, the belief is that even an acute exposure will affect them long term, though we don’t know how yet. Initially, SoCalGas and the Department of Health both say that the readings are too low to be considered dangerous. What I do know is that one of the symptoms of benzene exposure is body convulsions. Whether or not it’s absolutely that gas that caused the issues for my daughter, I do believe that the body is the best barometer when something isn’t right.
Now a month later, my wife and I have become more defensive against things that might harm our children now, we’re not as open as we used to be in trusting what we’re told. As for other Porter Ranch residents in our situation, many in the same demographic with children, I believe we are all in the same boat. Many, many other kids of the families we’ve spoken to have had repeated unexplained nosebleeds, nausea, and lethargy. I stress to other parents in our shoes – if you’re not satisfied with an answer, and your gut is telling you there’s something wrong – keep probing. Reach out to a variety of sources, officials, and do your own research, because your experience is real, even if an agency says it’s not.
And as of January 3, 2015, the zone hasn’t been declared a disaster zone by the State of California.* Which means we don’t have access to evacuation or disaster support beyond what Los Angeles County is able to provide. Some say it’s directly the result of California Governor Jerry Brown’s sister sitting on the board of SoCalGas. Others are pointing toward SoCalGas’ willingness to pay to relocate families or provide air filtration devices if they request it as sufficient (they were ordered to by the Department of Health). Regardless, there’s new data coming forward that suggests that SoCalGas deliberately put safety below their bottom line, because there were no safety valves installed on this facility where it counted. Because of that, it’s even more reason for me to stress – my kids are not guinea pigs. This facility needs to be shut down.
The Porter Ranch Gas Leak has taught me many things, but one thing stands out as a parent. Through these environmental disasters, you start to realize that your ability to protect your children- especially the young ones who depend on you for everything – sometimes is out of your control. And that’s a scary, scary thing.
*Since the time of this writing, the area was finally declared a disaster zone by the state of California. Further updates pending.
Our anonymous contributor is the father of two, and a displaced resident of Porter Ranch, Los Angeles, California. He and his wife are looking forward to being able to return their family to a safe home!