No Offsite Impact? Our Noses Must Be Lying
If you spent any time breathing in the Lake Area this past Sunday, you probably felt like you were standing in a hot wall of fart. But, like, more than usual for Southwest Louisiana.
That rotten egg smell your nose was telling you about was due to a release of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) from the CITGO refinery in Westlake. Don’t worry, though. According to CITGO spokesperson, Dana Keel, everything’s fine. The Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness even said no offsite impact was reported due to the release everyone was somehow smelling offsite. I guess maybe we all must have psychic noses or something.
Of course, saying everything is fine when everyone knows it's not is kind of what we do around here...
Hydrogen Sulfide is nothing to play around with, either. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), H2S can cause a wide range of health effects, depending on how much you breath, and for how long. According to multiple reports from area residents, the most common effects were headaches and nausea, in addition to the typical fart stink.
Here’s a quick rundown of the symptoms at varying concentrations.
- Low concentrations – irritation of eyes, nose, throat, or respiratory system; effects can be delayed.
- Moderate concentrations – more severe eye and respiratory effects, headache, dizziness, nausea, coughing, vomiting and difficulty breathing.
- High concentrations – shock, convulsions, unable to breathe, coma, death; effects can be extremely rapid (within a few breaths).
According to the OSHA Quick Card, we were likely breathing in a moderate concentration of the gas while it was busy having no offsite impact on us. OSHA’s Safety Card on H2S puts the symptoms people were reporting anywhere from 2-5 parts per million up to 20ppm.
Strictly speaking, that’s not enough exposure to cause any immediate health threat beyond the obvious symptoms. We’d need a lot more concentration of the gas (over 500ppm) to cause serious damage and possibly death, or less (100ppm) over a longer period of time (around 48 hours).
The old saying, “Poison is in the dosage” is true. Anything is toxic if you’re exposed to enough of it. Even water is toxic if you drink too much (it's called Hyponatremia), so anyone saying the H2S release wasn’t dangerous is technically correct, from that point of view.
However, another way of looking at it would be to say, “Poison is in the exposure over time”. We’re exposed to a lot of chemicals here in South Louisiana. According to the EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) program, area plants have had multiple formal enforcement actions against them and have paid millions in penalties over the past five years alone.
According to ECHO, CITGO has had 12 inspections over the past five years, with 2 formal enforcement actions and 2 penalties totaling over $1 million, which makes that refinery one of the most heavily penalized in the area. They're hardly alone, though. Other area refineries have also had multiple violations resulting in enforcement and millions of dollars in penalties over the past 5 years.
How many of these "upsets" and releases have we experienced over the years? Sure, poison is in the dosage - but, as we've said, it's also in exposure over time. The effects of multiple minor exposures to these gases and chemicals over time aren't known.
The interplay between this chemical and that compound in our bodies also isn't known. For example, we all know not to mix bleach with vinegar when we're trying to clean up whatever that sticky gunk was we found behind the freezer, because combining them produces deadly chlorine gas. However, what's happening when different chemicals released by local industry combine in our bodies?
No one knows, really. When we take different medications, doctors have to be very careful about how they'll interact when they're metabolized by the body - but nobody has any research on how Random Gas X interacts with Random Gas Y.
It's important to note that most of the chemicals that get released are in low concentrations that our body is able to filter out, although sometimes temporary damage occurs.
This is because the human body has a remarkable ability to filter out toxins and heal itself, with absolutely no help needed from whatever snake oil that friend of yours from high school started spamming all over Facebook after she bought into a juice cleanse multi-level marketing scheme. Our bodies don't need to be "cleansed" of toxins because our bodies are constantly doing that already. Our kidneys do it. Our livers do it. Even our skin helps out. In fact, my body is probably filtering out whatever was in that microwave burrito I ate last night because I don't respect myself.
However, different toxins behave differently. Most things that cause immediate damage will eventually get filtered out, but they've already caused damage. Your eyes don't start watering for no reason, and vomiting is a sure sign that either something has gone wrong with your insides, or maybe you're just in your first trimester and should probably go buy a pregnancy test.
The point is, while your body can filter out toxins and heal itself, damage is damage. Even though the body heals, damage over time is a factor. Your liver is perfectly capable of filtering out all the bad stuff in alcohol, for example, but drink enough of it over a long period of time, and all the inflammation and damage from it having to perform so much filtration adds up. The liver has an amazing regenerative ability, but damage it long enough and fibrosis (scarring) sets in, which can ultimately lead to cirrhosis and death.
Take that idea and apply it to all the stuff that's been coming out of area refineries over the years, both intentionally and accidentally. Does it add up? Nobody knows, really. After all, there isn't a lot of funding for studying something when there's more money involved in not studying it.
There have been longterm studies of the individual compounds in crude oil, but determining the longterm effects of regular minor exposure to a virtually unlimited array of refining byproducts hasn't. However, what we can track is how the health of people in our area compares to the health of people who don't live near so many chemical plants.
The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) identifies Louisiana as having the third highest cancer rate in the nation as of 2014, behind Kentucky and Delaware. Additionally, with a total invasive cancer incident count of 592,357, South Louisiana is, by far, the largest cancer site in the state.
Is there a correlation between South Louisiana having the highest concentration of refineries and being the largest cancer site in the state with the third highest cancer rate in the nation? I don't know, man. I'm not a scientist.
Still, it doesn't seem like too far of a stretch, does it?
Like most of us in the area, I grew up near refineries. My aunt died from cancer, then my mom came down with the same cancer when she way too young. She died last year. One of my best friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in his 20s. We all know someone. Too many someones.
According to information provided in this excellent article about Mossville from 2015, area refineries released 180,644 pounds of vinyl chloride, 836,195 pounds of benzene, 75,064 pounds of ethylidene dichloride, 2,292,119 pounds of toluene, and 8 pounds of dioxins into the local environment between 2004 and 2013.
- Vinyl Chloride has been associated with liver, brain, and lung cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.
- Benzene has been associated with leukemia and blood disorders.
- Dioxins can cause cancer, damage to the immune and reproductive systems, as well as the disruption of hormone functions.
Sunday's release of Hydrogen Sulfide might not have technically had any offsite impact from an immediate and direct perspective (nobody keeled over and died), but the fact that we smelled it means we inhaled it. Because we inhaled it, some of us got headaches. Some of us got nauseous.
We were absolutely impacted.
Will this latest release lead to any lasting medical effects? Probably not. Not by itself, anyway. But we don't just casually inhale H2S on Sundays around here, do we?
We eat, drink, and breathe chemicals used by area industry all the time. In fact, the biggest excuse for not building a new I-10 bridge is because of a chemical spill years ago. (Although, that might not be entirely true. More on that here.)
The point is, every time something like this happens, we get a press release saying it's no big deal. Can you remember the last time one of these releases resulted in any sort of major warning? Has any industry spokesperson ever said a release was actually dangerous?
All we ever seem to hear is no offsite impact. Nothing dangerous. Go back to your shopping. Nothing to see here, folks. Have a po' boy. Everything's fine.
Because that's all we ever hear. From everyone.
Local industry says everything's fine, and the media runs the press release. Local politicians say everything's fine, and the media runs the press release. The Policy Jury says everything's fine, and the media runs the press release. The Chamber of Commerce says everything's fine, and the media runs the press release.
Open your window. Walk out your door. Take a deep breath, and smell the chemicals. Check your bank account, and see how much money you don't have in this economic boomtown. Look at the lines of people needing Section 8 housing, then look at how much it costs to live here.
Does everything seem fine to you?