On February 18, SoCalGas and the national media declared the “worst methane gas leak in U.S. history” permanently sealed, but just over a month later, hundreds of Porter Ranch residents who evacuated — and are now returning home — are suffering the same symptoms they suffered when the gas leak was active. They are experiencing nausea, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nosebleeds, and many, including children, are also experiencing a new ailment: irritated skin rashes across their bodies.
Neither SoCalGas, which owns the Aliso Canyon facility, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, nor any other government agency has provided a concrete explanation for these continued symptoms. In fact, one of Los Angeles County’s top medical officials recently told local physicians to refrain from performing tests to determine what is causing the symptoms. Late last week, preliminary lab tests from an independent UCLA study found evidence of benzene, a carcinogen, in at least two Porter Ranch homes. Benzene was reported to have been released in the 100 metric tons of methane that spewed into the Los Angeles basin for four months — a fact SoCalGas previously attempted to downplay and withhold.
Reemergence of Symptoms
On March 4, Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitchell Englander issued a press release reporting the Department of Public Health had received at least 150 complaints of reemerging symptoms, including nosebleeds, dizziness headaches, nausea, and skin rashes. Now, the Health Department says it has received 300 complaints since residents began moving home after SoCalGas told them it was safe to do so.
Many residents have said the rashes, which can be extensive, are new and did not occur during the initial, months-long gas leak from October to February. During that time, thousands of families were evacuated and the Department of Public Health received 700 health complaints. Others reported experiencing skin irritation before they relocated, though it appears to be more widespread now.
Residents who left Porter Ranch for temporary housing accommodations and recently moved home told Anti-Media about their symptoms (many still have not moved home, fearful it is still unsafe). Helen Ritenour, a Porter Ranch resident who left the area in December, said that within two days of returning to their home, she and her family began feeling sick.
“The main symptoms are headaches, difficulty breathing, watery eyes, coughing and general fatigue. It feels like I’m in a thick fog of sorts that’s oppressive,” she said. She and her husband were not eager to return home, still concerned about toxins in the area and the health of their newborn baby. But amid long delays receiving reimbursements from SoCalGas — and unable to charge more expenses on their credit card — they moved back to Porter Ranch. Ritenour told Anti-Media that like many other families, she and her husband have had to pay out-of-pocket for relocation services — and have experienced long delays receiving reimbursement checks.
Gabriel Khanlian, a resident who serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Save Porter Ranch, a group formed in 2014 to fight the massive, aging, and leaking facility before the blowout even happened, also said he and his family have suffered symptoms since moving home.
“My daughter Tatiana keeps getting large rashes, red welts and bumps all over her body. Her skin is dry and her behavior has changed significantly and she is very cranky. She has a loss of appetite and is sleeping a lot more,” he said. “My sons, Jayden and Mason, have been getting bloody noses, headaches, upset stomachs, burning eyes, runny nose, dry skin.”
He described other troubles they’ve had, noting his sons are experiencing “anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, and stress from not having the ability to play. Their personalities have changed majorly.”
He said his wife, who experienced symptoms during the initial methane gas leak, is now experiencing them more severely than before.
Kyoko Habino, a Porter Ranch resident and co-founder of Save Porter Ranch, said:
When I go home to pick up stuff or do a few things, within a few minutes, I start having a dull headache and coughing and having palpitations. Nosebleeds follow later on often. My partner has had headaches, fatigue, and a burning sensation in his chest at the same time I have. Our cat has had a nosebleed and vomited. When I am away from home, the headache goes away instantly. The cough and nosebleed stay for a while, and are gone after.
Walter Arwood, a Porter Ranch resident, experienced nausea, among other symptoms:
I am rolling over sick right now. My stomach has been so upset, I have gotten all the headaches back, my husband has had three nose bleeds in two days, and now a visiting relative was out of breath just walking up the stairs at my home. How is it safe?
Arwood was evacuated during the methane gas leak and recently returned home. “Since we have moved back the symptoms have immediately returned,” he said. “Itchy skin is the only new thing. We have all of our air purifiers on and the scrubber running and still it is happening.”
Residents in surrounding areas, including Chatsworth and Granada Hills, have also reported a reemergence of symptoms.
Sandy Crawford, a resident of Granada Hills, told CBS News in February — after the methane gas leak was sealed — that within a few hours of returning home, her youngest son had trouble breathing and suffered a nosebleed. Crawford moved her sons back to their hotel, and after trying again to move home and experiencing the same results, she returned to the hotel for a second time. She told Anti-Media they recently tried sleeping at home for a few nights and did not feel symptoms, but she remains afraid they could return. As a result, she is staying at the hotel.
“Avoid performing any toxicological tests”
Though these symptoms are pronounced, neither SoCalGas nor the Department of Public Health has offered a definitive explanation of what is causing them. In fact, Dr. Cyrus Rangan, Director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, recently issued a “Health Update” to “primary care, urgent care, internal medicine, and emergency medicine providers” in the area cautioning them against conducting tests on patients with symptoms.
The advisory, dated Tuesday, March 8, requested that healthcare professionals “look for alternate etiologies other than air contamination,” and “avoid performing any toxicological tests,” claiming “these are not recommended and are unlikely to provide useful data for clinical evaluation of patients.”
Rangan said in the notice that if no “alternative etiology” is found, doctors should consult with him. While it is an indisputable act of due diligence to recommend doctors check for other potential causes of symptoms, it is unclear why a top public health official would discourage doctors from performing tests to better understand illnesses among their patients.
“It’s not to steer the community away from thinking it’s not an environmental issue,” Rangan insisted to the Los Angeles Daily News, adding that, as the local paper summarized, “even when the gas was leaking he did not recommend that doctors perform toxicological tests because there is no test that can determine if a person was exposed to natural gas.”
However, residents are concerned not just with methane, but with other contaminants found in it, from mercaptans to benzene to other toxic emissions (mercaptans are odorants added to natural gas to make it detectable, and are believed to have causedsymptoms when the gas leak was active). Many found Rangan’s explanation to be insufficient and an attempt to ask doctors to “look the other way.”
Further, his request that doctors refrain from conducting tests appears to contradict his own supplementary declaration provided for a hearing held last Friday to extend relocation benefits to residents, many of whom feel they were rushed out of temporary housing, evidently, before it was safe to return home.
In that statement, Rangan referred to the continued illnesses as “perplexing,” proceeding to offer potential explanations not previously disclosed to Anti-Media when he spoke with us:
It could be that there are persistent levels of contaminants still present in the community, or there could be other exposures in areas of the community that were missed in the external environmental monitoring, or perhaps gases may have saturated the soil at the Aliso Canyon facility or other substrates and are being released now that the source has been sealed.
In spite of Rangan’s multiple hypotheses, however, he has offered no definitive explanation, nor does it appear the Department of Public Health has seriously looked for one (meaning it could be helpful for physicians to run tests on their patients). Asked to investigate a persistent oily residue coating the outside of residents’ homes and the playground of at least one park, representatives sent from Public Health reported they found “no evidence of any oily residue and no health concern for residents or visitors.”
When residents complained to Councilman Englander, representatives from his office confirmed the playsets were coated in oil and SoCalGas agreed clean the park. Three other parks were also shut down amid concerns about the residue, which Rangan insists is safe, aside from causing skin irritation. Mandi Bane, a lab assistant in Rangan’s office, told Anti-Media they have no intentions to test the soil in the community.