At 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning (9/9) I awoke suddenly with a splitting headache, a sensation like my face was pinned against cold glass. As I became more aware, I realized I had a stomach ache, and my back and legs ached. In a word – pain. I was in pain.
I noticed an odor in the air. Pungent? Sweet? Sour? I couldn’t pin it down. I headed for the kitchen. The window was open. I shut it and began sneezing uncontrollably. The odor was definitely coming from outdoors because once we closed up the house I couldn’t smell it anymore. I tried some of the things my doctor has told me to do when this happens but the reaction inside my body had already been set in motion.
My husband Tod said his nose was stuffed up and he couldn’t smell anything but he was definitely reacting to something because his joints ached and he felt lethargic.
Shortly after 7:00 a.m., after Tod rode his bike to his office in Silt, he reported back to me that there was definitely something bad in the air because his symptoms worsened when he was riding his bike. He had a metallic taste in his mouth, his eyes were watery and irritated, and his throat ached. But he couldn’t tell where the odor was coming from because it was pervasive from our house to his office 5 blocks away.
I sent an email to Kirby Wynn (Garfield County oil & gas liaison) describing the odor and our symptoms. He responded shortly after that he was on it. Within the hour I received a call from John Doose of Ursa Resources. I was briefly taken aback, as I had expected the caller was Kirby. I wasn’t expecting to hear from Ursa. I hadn’t mentioned Ursa in my email to Kirby.
Anyway, John Doose asked me to describe the odor, when I smelled it, and where I thought it was coming from. I told him I didn’t know where it was coming from. I told him what Tod had told me. We briefly discussed how with no wind the heavier air settles into the river basin and along with that some odors. Um, yes but this made us sick. I described some of our symptoms but he was more concerned with whether I knew where the odor came from. I told him I had just been outside and could still smell wafts of it in the air. I described the odor as sort of sour and sort of sweet, like sour gas. Doose said he would get to the bottom of it and get back to me later that day.
I have never smelled anything like that odor before. At one point Fiona’s phrase “lemon washing up liquid” came to mind. I thought “lemon washing up liquid” mixed with gas, like two odors mixed together — one odor masking another?
No matter what the odor smelled like, my reaction was all too familiar.
Last spring, I underwent DNA testing (it’s painless). The results were analyzed meticulously during the summer by a DNA researcher and a toxicologist. DNA analysis uncovers many different things about an individual and it can be complicated so I’ll keep this as simple as possible. The two most significant things my DNA analysis revealed are:
1. My body is unable to process BTEXS* (benzene-toluene-ethylbenzene-xylene-styrene)
2. My immune system is not functioning because my body is contaminated with ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, and styrene caused by prolonged exposure. (3 generations of oil and gas contamination)
The DNA tests confirmed what we had suspected because I have been keeping track of my symptoms for years. But what I didn’t know is the reaction can be similar to that of a bee sting. Meaning for someone who is allergic to bee stings (like me) each time I get stung my reaction worsens. It’s the same with BTEXS. Each time I am exposed, my reaction is worse because the toxins are piled up because my body can’t process them.
My “sensitivity” – it feels more like “intolerance” — to these specific toxins is not unique. Some researchers estimate that up to 50% of the human population shares my intolerance because the root cause is a gene mutation. I think it’s probably more like 30%, which is why not a lot of attention has been paid to genetics and DNA analysis. But that’s a whole nother subject.
Let’s go back to Wednesday. So I smelled something bad. I got a headache and a stomach ache. The smell went away. Everything’s fine.
For Tod, that’s pretty much the story. When the air cleared so did his symptoms and all is well.
For me (and there are many others like me), it’s different. During Wednesday morning, my body’s reaction to the odor I had inhaled continued. In addition to the head-stomach-body-aches, my nose was stuffed up, and my eyes were gooey and irritated. I had a metallic taste in my mouth and my tongue was swollen. I coughed all day like there was something caught in my throat. The stomach ache lasted until I ate dinner and then passed out. The head and body aches are not as intense but persist as a dull ache from my head to my toes. I also developed an earache and swollen glands on Wednesday, which are also still with me. I don’t know how long these symptoms will last.
There are things I can do to address my symptoms, and I do those things. But there is nothing I can do to stop my body’s reaction. Once I’ve been exposed to BTEXS, leaving town won’t stop the chain reaction that has already been set in motion inside my body. In fact the toluene I’ve been contaminated with has already screwed up my neurotransmitters (my DNA analysis shows) so along with the physical reaction, my nervous system goes haywire. Not once has it occurred to me to hop in my Jeep and drive to someplace else while suffering through these symptoms.
I did not hear from John Doose again. Kirby Wynn called me on Thursday. I told him that we had closed up the house overnight and I did not smell the odor again. When Tod went outside on Thursday morning he got a metallic taste in his mouth and his eyes were irritated. When I went outside I got a metallic taste in my mouth so I stayed indoors. I explained that most of my symptoms had calmed down but I was still dealing with my body’s reaction to the odor.
Kirby said he had contacted Ursa and WPX to see if they had anything going on but he didn’t go into the specifics of their responses. Kirby and I talked for a long time. Without going into detail, here’s the gist.
With Kirby — or really anyone who defends the industry — it’s always, well we don’t know where the stink is coming from. It could be anything. But it’s not our guys cuz they say so. And we take their word for it cuz they’re good guys.
Of course we talked about the weather, the air flow, how Silt is in a basin, and we live up against mesa, and odors can come from anywhere – blah-blah-blah.
But I said, “No.”
I told him about my “sensitivity” to BTEXS and that I’ve been to well pads and other oil & gas sites and my reaction Wednesday morning was the same as when I was exposed to emissions at those sites. My sensitivity is specifically to BTEXS so therefore that is what I was exposed to and that is what was in the odor I inhaled on Wednesday morning, which I have never smelled before.
I explained the whole chain reaction thing. I told him that if I had known ahead of time there was going to be an increase in emissions I could have left town. Like when Silt burned the cattails. The police chief made the burn schedule public. I left before the burn started and I didn’t get sick.
I told Kirby my dream – actually my pipe dream because it’ll never happen – I’m asking for the moon – but anyway my dream is that we could be notified in advance that some operational event will cause increased emissions so that those who are sensitive to the chemicals have the option to leave. Instead of being blindsided and knocked on my ass like I was on Wednesday.
Kirby didn’t hold out much hope for that happening either.
It’s status quo for oil & gas operators to shrug their shoulders and act like the dog farted when someone says, “The air stinks.” But I’ve done the research, the tests, and the analysis. I don’t need to test the air. And I don’t need to pinpoint the source of the odor. I know what I’m breathing by the way my body reacts.
On Wednesday morning, without a doubt I inhaled some or all of the chemicals in BTEXS. It doesn’t matter where the odor came from, we all know the oil & gas sites and facilities are emitting HAPs (hazardous air pollutants). The oil & gas operators know their sites are emitting HAPs and they all need to man up and take responsibility.
I want those who work in the oil & gas industry – like Kirby’s “good guys” who say they are our friends and neighbors – I want these friends and neighbors of ours in the oil & gas industry to know the suffocating, painful, and uncontrollable chain reaction that BTEXS exposure sets off in a “sensitive” person like me. There are certainly hundreds more people like me – maybe thousands. Most who suffer in silence, many who don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies, and many more like me who are sick.
If oil & gas operators sincerely care about their friends and neighbors in their communities, then stop spewing toxic waste in to our air!
Instead of a pipe dream, I challenge oil & gas operators to a goal. ZERO EMISSIONS. Then all of our dreams can come true.
* The commonly used acronym is BTEX (benzene-toluene-ethylbenzene-xylene). I use BTEXS (benzene-toluene-ethylbenzene-xylene-styrene) because my test results show contamination from and inability to process all five chemicals.
For more information:
Study published April 15, 2015: New Look at BTEX: Are Ambient Levels a Problem?
New Look at BTEX: Are Ambient Levels a Problem?
Findings and Implications
Health Effects of Chemicals Associated with Oil & Gas Development (Click on image to enlarge)
Source: Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution Identified at Oil and Gas Development Sites