Understanding the health impacts of mercaptan on Porter Ranch residents

Many of the acute symptoms and health problems reported among victims of the Porter Ranch gas leak may be attributable to the additive mercaptan.

In the wake of the massive Aliso Canyon methane gas leak, many residents of the nearby Porter Ranch community developed serious acute health issues. Some of these issues persisted even after the leak was stopped, prompting questions about their underlying causes. Ongoing investigations and available research now suggest that mercaptan, an additive used to give natural gas a detectable sulfur odor, may be responsible for many of these symptoms and health complications.

Exposure symptoms

The symptoms of mercaptan exposure vary depending on the nature of the additive. However, one class of mercaptan that was detected during the Porter Ranch gas leak, methyl mercaptan, is known to cause a number of severe acute symptoms upon inhalation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritation to the lungs and mucous membranes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness and difficulty walking
  • Headaches

High levels of exposure may also produce much more damaging effects. In one tragic case, a worker experienced red blood cell loss and increases in blood pressure after he was exposed to methyl mercaptan. He ultimately fell into a coma and passed away within a month of exposure.

Effects on children

Sadly, children may suffer more severe symptoms from mercaptan exposure than adults, according to the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Compared to adults, children have a higher ratio of lung surface area to body weight, so they suffer more pronounced effects from similar levels of exposure. Additionally, some mercaptans, including methyl mercaptan, are dense and concentrated closer to the ground, which means exposure is greater for people with shorter statures.

Secondary risks

Research also indicates that some mercaptans may endanger Porter Ranch residents by converting into other harmful substances after they are released into the environment. For example, according to The Los Angeles Daily News, one study suggests that certain conditions allow methyl mercaptan to convert into hydrogen sulfide. This substance is known to cause several serious health issues, including respiratory problems, nosebleeds, arrhythmia and fluid buildup in the lungs.

Additional issues

Along with these health problems, many victims of the Porter Ranch gas leak have experienced other adverse outcomes, such as loss of home value, emotional distress, lost earnings, and business losses, not to mention the potential physical harm caused by benzene, zylene, radon and other toxic chemicals found in the gas. As the Los Angeles Times notes, home sales decreased markedly after the leak, even as the number of homes that residents put on the market rose. This rise in available homes and reduction in demand could spur a significant drop in the value of local homes.

Fears about similar gas leaks and environmental contamination occurring in the future could also contribute to loss of home value. Per The Los Angeles Times, in 2014, the company that oversees the Aliso Canyon well expressed concerns about the deterioration of its storage facilities and the related rise in leaks. Worrisomely, the company's request for rate changes to finance additional well maintenance has still not been granted. This suggests that the risk of additional failures happening in the future may be substantial.

Recompense for wrongful losses

In light of the huge physical, emotional and financial toll that the Aliso Canyon gas leak has taken, it is critical for local residents to be aware of their legal rights. Some residents may be able to recover compensation for their personal injuries as well as the lost value of their homes. For further information, residents should consider meeting with an environmental tort attorney to discuss their damages and legal options.

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