I don’t put my health issues out for public view to get attention or sympathy. I’m like a cat when I get sick. All I want to do is crawl into a cozy corner by myself and sleep until it all goes away.
I do this as a public service. I do this in memory of Chris Mobaldi of Rifle, who died four years ago last month, poisoned by fracking pollution. The rest of the world needs to know the human health impacts not just from fracking, but from all aspects of unconventional oil and gas development.
I am a one-woman human health impact study.
At the end of 2009, there were about 3,900 active oil & gas wells in Garfield County. As of October 5, 2014, there are 10,834 active oil & gas wells in the county. Over the past five years, the constant and steadily increasing toxic chemical emissions from the more than doubling of unconventional oil and gas operations have slowly degraded my immune system to the point where it is now comparable to the immune system of someone with cystic fibrosis, leukemia, or AIDs. If this is happening to me, it’s happening to everyone who lives here. It’s a cellular breakdown so it happens to each person at their body’s own individual pace, according to their level of exposure and past medical history. For example, it’s happening much more slowly to my husband Tod because he travels for work once a month, and his immune system is stronger than mine.
My medication and treatment regimen began immediately on October 16. I started taking the first medication for seven days. I actually felt a little better after three days. I was ecstatic. This isn’t so bad, I thought. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe the doctor when she said the cure was worse than the disease, I was just too sick to comprehend.
I was also frantic to learn more about pseudomonas aeruginosa. After all, it was living off my body like some parasite with rude manners and disgusting hygiene. I researched my disease until I learned more about pseudomonas aeruginosa than I ever wanted to know. The best way for me to explain it is in layman’s terms, which won’t be scientifically precise but it’s simpler this way.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria cohabit in colonies. To protect themselves they cover their colony with a biofilm, like a sticky mucus. When medication, like an antibiotic, breaks through the biofilm, the bacteria produce exotoxin that is released as the bacterial organisms spread out for survival, carrying the toxin with them. And — this is where it gets really creepy — they attack their host (that would be me in this case).
After seven days, I switched to a second medication. On the fourth day of that medication (October 27), my stomach felt like it was on fire. I passed blood. It was a scary day. When I talked to the doctor by phone and described what was going on she explained the medication had broken through the biofilm and the toxic laden bacteria had eaten through the lining of my stomach, and left me with a bleeding ulcer. By day’s end the bleeding had stopped and the pain subsided.
The doctor told me to switch back to the first medication. “That will keep the bacteria from re-establishing themselves while you deal with the toxins.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Remember when I said the cure can sometimes be worse than the disease? Well that’s where we are. From now on we’re dealing with bacteria that are swimming in toxins. We have to flush them out of your system but they’re going to continue to attack your organs all the way out.”
Oh. Frack. Just kill me now, I thought.
Because of my brand new ulcer, I couldn’t keep any food down. So before I could even consider a bland diet I had to resort to a liquid diet. A week later I was able to slowly graduate to the bland diet. For days on end my life consisted of drinking gallons of liquids, sleeping, soaking in hot baths, or curled up in a fetal position from the pain. Occasionally I dragged myself to the computer and posted on my blogs, as a way to feel normal and pretend none of this is really happening.
Then on November 7, the toxins attacked my kidneys. The doctor said my kidneys reacted to the toxins like they would to any foreign substance like say, a kidney stone. So I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, except to add that I spent 3 hours in the ER undergoing tests and flushing my kidneys with a saline IV. The doctor instructed me to stop the first medication and start a third medication to help flush out the toxins. Thankfully I haven’t had to endure any more internal organ crises since that day.
Like some biblical plague, pseudomonas spares none of its victims the full monty when it comes to pain and humiliation. Next up — rashes and skin lesions. The disease toxins also work their way out through the skin. The rashes flare up and disappear quickly. The skin lesions erupt in little clusters. They mostly hang around and ooze toxins. Interesting from the efficiency of the human body standpoint but — just gross.
During these past four weeks, I have gradually improved, though progress is painfully slow — with the emphasis on painfully. I have even had a few days where I feel like I can survive this disease. Then there are other days when I wonder if I’m going to feel like crap for the rest of my life.
As I write this I am faithfully adhering to my treatment regimen as I await more test results. Relapse is an all-too-common aspect of this disease so I’m not taking any chances. I had hoped to be well enough to attend some of the Governor’s blue ribbon task force festivities in Rifle this week. I seriously doubt that now. They will have to settle for a letter from me instead.
But wait — there’s more.
Just when you thought this disease could not be any more terrifying, I’m about to let you in on a little secret that totally blew my mind. Once again, I have to explain this in layman’s terms, so bear with me.
As I delved deeper into the google machine to learn more about the whole biofilm aspect of this disease, I stumbled upon the term “oil spill.”
Turns out the oil & gas industry has, for more than a decade, used common bacteria to clean up spills. And it just so happens that the most effective bacteria for cleaning up hydrocarbon spills is — OMFG — pseudomonas aeruginosa. What a bizarre coincidence!
It’s like a symbiotic relationship. The hydrocarbons break the biofilm, the exotoxins are produced and eat the hydrocarbons — much like they ate through my stomach lining. Apparently, the use of pseudomonas aeruginosa is quite common at well pads, even for those messy little day-to-day spills that industrial strength Brawny won’t pick up. The spills we all know occur but the operators never report.
The industry takes pride in the fact that they are using an “organic” substance, something that is already “naturally occurring” in the environment to clean up spills. Of course it’s not “naturally occurring” because they are using a potent, hybrid strain of pseudomonas aeruginosa created in the laboratory. And it’s an aerosolized application which means they spray it on the hydrocarbon contaminated soil.
Do I think this is somehow connected to how I contracted this disease?
It seems highly unlikely. For one thing, we don’t know if local operators are using pseudomonas aeruginosa for spills. Let’s face it, there’s no way Williams is going to admit they’re spraying pseudomonas aeruginosa on contaminated soil from the Parachute Creek spill. Or that Ursa’s going to admit to keeping barrels of the stuff at well pad sites to clean up those spills that never happen. They have a special word for the bacteria — rhamnolipid — so it’s not like we’d know what the hell they’re talking about anyway.
I sent an email inquiry to the Environmental Manager at the COGCC, asking if he knew whether Colorado operators use pseudomonas aeruginosa to clean up spills. Greg Deranleau responded: “I am not aware of any such use. However, COGCC does not always track what method of treatment an operator is using. Instead we ensure that the results of the treatment meet the applicable standards.”
Yeah. We know the drill. He knows. But he doesn’t have to tell me. It’s of no consequence anyway because I don’t work at a well pad site so I wouldn’t have had direct exposure.
I am certainly not a scientist but it seems to me that if pseudomonas aeruginosa is in fact being sprayed on hydrocarbon spills on a regular basis at the well pads around here, then it would likely spread by attaching itself to particulate matter in the air and it wouldn’t be in significant enough concentrations to infect humans. Even if, by chance, it was strong enough, the exposure would come from breathing it in and would be more likely to cause a rash, or infect a person’s upper respiratory system first. The sole purpose of this bacterial organism is to find the nearest warm, moist environment to attach itself to and multiply.
And yet, I don’t have to stretch my imagination very far at all to see the greater implications. Going back to the above hypothetical, let’s say that pseudomonas aeruginosa IS being sprayed on hydrocarbon spills on a regular basis at the well pads around here. Does that mean there are higher than normal concentrations of the bacteria in our soil and water? What goes up, must come down.
We all know that as a result of unconventional oil & gas drilling operations, we definitely experience higher concentrations of toxic chemicals (benzene, methane, BTEXs, etc.) in our air, soil, and water. It’s only logical the same would hold true for bacteria, especially a potent, hybrid version created in a laboratory, and designed to withstand a harsh environment. As if our immune systems didn’t have enough shit to deal with.
Alas, there is no scientific evidence for any of this because no one is even studying the impacts of spraying a potent, hybrid version of pseudomonas aeruginosa (or any other vicious, laboratory-produced rhamnolipid) into the environment.
Anyway, I am nothing if not doggedly persistent. I do know how I contracted this disease. The proper authorities have been contacted and the matter is currently under investigation. To be continued …
For more information:
Rhamnolipid Companies, Inc. manufactures pseudomonas aeruginosa