Dr Nordella was asked to write an article for the Valley Voice Newspaper about health concerns related to the current Porter Ranch gas leak.

Natural Gas

Starting in late October, the Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, owned by Sempra Energy began leaking gas that affected the community of Porter Ranch.  It’s speculated that the repair process can take up to 2 to 4 months. This has led to numerous people being moved out of the area. 

My name is Jeffery Nordella and I’m a physician and Medical Director for Porter Ranch Quality Care, the Urgent Care clinic sitting in the heart of the gas leak. Our facility has seen an increased number of patients with a wide variety of complaints. I’ve been asked to write this article to give a basic explanation of what the gas leak means to people in the affected area.  

It is important for you to understand that I am not a toxicologist nor a pulmonologist.  I am reporting what I have reviewed in the literature.

Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbongas mixture consisting primarily of methane. It is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure over thousands of years. A hydrocarbon is a molecule of carbon with surrounding hydrogen atoms. Specifically, methane contains a single carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms. Natural gas does contain other hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, butane and others. In addition, natural gas also contains a small percentage of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide along with other chemicals which we will discuss later. The energy that the plants originally obtained from the sun is stored in the form of chemical bonds within the gas, which we transform into energy for our use in our homes.

The gas in its natural form is essentially odorless. A chemical, Mercaptan, is added. This sulfur-containing compound has the odor of rotten eggs and is what gives natural gas its distinctive scent.

Toxicity is a function a few principles: the amount (concentration) of chemical someone is exposed to, the route of exposure, the total time of exposure and the health of the patient prior to exposure. Most gaseous chemicals are measured in parts per million (ppm). When it comes to actually measuring chemicals there are numerous variables that contributes to inaccurate measurements, such as if the chemical is measured in an unconfined open space like our atmosphere. One of the biggest challenges when determining toxicity is to accurately distinguish exactly just how much and for how long someone has been exposed to a given chemical.  Therefore it’s imperative to look more at the symptoms and lab results of the person exposed.

Let’s start with Methane, the main component of natural gas. It is classified as an asphyxiant, which is defined as something that displaces oxygen from hemoglobin.  We all know what happens when we do not have enough oxygen to our tissues, especially the brain and heart, the tissue can be damaged. Most literature suggests that methane needs to be present in very high amounts in order to create damage. The problem is I could find nothing in the literature that talked about lower concentration exposures for prolonged periods of time.  So this creates, in my mind, an unknown.  As a point of interest, miners previously placed canaries in deep mines to check methane gas levels. Reportedly, when the canaries died it indicated it was time to leave.

Hydrogen sulfide, also present in natural gas, is considered a broad-spectrum poison, meaning that it can poison several different organ systems in the body, although the nervous system is most affected. It has a direct vasodilatation effect on the vascular system, in other words it widens the blood vessels, and could have beneficial effects of course only under appropriate dosing.

Since hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally in the body, the gut enzymes are capable of detoxifying it by oxidation to (harmless) sulfate. Hence, low levels of hydrogen sulfide may be tolerated indefinitely.  Another point of interest is that a diagnostic clue of extreme poisoning by hydrogen sulfide is the discoloration of copper coins in the pockets of the victim.

Exposure to lower concentrations can result in eye irritation, a sore throat and cough, nosebleeds, nausea, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema). These effects are believed to be due to the fact that hydrogen sulfide combines with chemicals present in moist surface tissues to form a caustic agent. These symptoms usually go away in a few weeks if the person is no longer exposed to hydrogen sulfide.  Long-term, low-level exposure may result in fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, irritability, poor memory, and dizziness.

Two other chemicals have been disclosed by the Department of Public Health. The first is Benzene. This has long been known for a significant carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, of course again at toxic levels and at toxic durations. This potentially could affect your bone marrow causing anything from anemia to leukemia.

Radon is a radioactive chemical in a gaseous form that can be inhaled.  It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Its half-life is 3.8 days which basically means that half of its concentration spontaneously decays in approximately four days. This only happens if the supply is halted.

There is solid scientific evidence that shows there is a clear link between breathing high concentrations of radon and an increase incidence of lung cancer in non-smokers.  It also raises the likelihood of lung cancer beyond the already-high rates for smokers. The Surgeon General of the United States has declared radon to be the second leading cause of lung cancer today.

In conclusion, while we know a lot about these chemicals in high concentration, very little work has been done on their effects at a low concentration for a prolonged period of time. In my opinion everyone in charge is still in a “wait and see mindset”.

Therefore, I would highly recommend first to be removed from the area where you might be exposed to these chemicals.  Second, if you are symptomatic with any of the effects listed above, see your physician for a baseline evaluation; it might be a good time to get your annual physical done. And third, follow up for continued testing so the results can be compared with earlier tests, especially if your symptoms persist.

I hope this helps.

J. Nordella M.D.
Medical Director
Porter Ranch Quality Care 

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