What are the health dangers of the Porter Ranch gas leak?

As the Porter Ranch gas leak is almost contained, questions linger about long-term consequences of natural gas exposure.

In the short-term, they range from headaches, nausea, vomiting, bloody noses and respiratory irritation like wheezing. No one knows the long-term effects that the residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood may suffer.

Unlike oil and other natural resources, we cannot easily detect natural gas. It is not visible to the naked eye and is odorless. Without the additive, Mercaptan (a sulfur-based compound that gives natural gas its distinctive odor), people in the Los Angeles County community would not have had any indication that 87,500 metric tons of methane had spilled from nearby storage. Natural gas is mostly methane, which is not generally harmful to people, however Mercaptan causes many known short-term health issues.

The Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility takes advantage of existing underground caverns that once stored oil. As a result, the gas contains components of more harmful chemicals including benzene (a carcinogen that increases long-term risks of cancer) and other compounds.

Southern California Gas Co. helped more than 5,500 families relocate as the company completes the slow repairs required to stop the leak.

Researchers do not have the answers: More study required

To plug the leak, SoCalGas needed to drill down 8,500 feet and fill the source with concrete. Recent estimates are that the leak should be contained by mid-February. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has ordered the company to complete a study on the health effects of the leak.

Michael Jerrett, the head of the department of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to National Public Radio that there is a research gap on the effects of exposure to benzene over several months.

An expert on respiratory health and the air pollution's impact on public health, Ed Avol, will study the long-term health effects of the Porter Ranch gas leak. Because no one knows the long-term consequences, his team will consider issues ranging from respiratory and cardiovascular to neurological. The added stress is even a concern since it often leads to inflammation, which underlies many biological responses.

Legal charges against the company

The California Attorney General's office notified the company of potential criminal charges in addition to a civil lawsuit. Attorney General Kamala Harris alleges that the company violated safety laws and then did not report the massive leak immediately.

The civil lawsuit seeks penalties including an injunction and restitution. The criminal case could trigger a fine of up to $25,000 for each day that the company knew about the leak and failed to contact state authorities.

New regulations strengthen oversight

To address the situation and prevent it from occurring again, the California Department of Conservation recently enacted new regulations. The temporary regulations will require all gas storage companies in the state to conduct daily inspections of storage wellheads with infrared imaging and to develop comprehensive risk management plans.

Civil remedies are available for the families impacted by the gas leak to cover medical costs, lost wages, reduction in property values as well as pain and suffering. But since the long-term consequences of exposure to these chemicals are unknown, making a causal link between the exposure and later health issues can be difficult. The interplay with the state civil and criminal lawsuits also adds to the complexity of these cases.

Those with questions about their legal remedies should speak with a lawyer who handles environmental injury cases such as one of the attorneys at the Frantz Law Group.

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