What makes an entire family all of a sudden need asthma medications?

I just read this article about the Cerny family from Karnes County in south Texas.

Mike, the father, reports that he gets three or four migraines a day, and that he never had migraines before in his life. He and his wife Myra report mysterious rashes on their arms and legs, and say their teenage son has suffered unexplained, gushing nosebleeds.  Myra says their sinuses burn, their eyes burn so much that they have to rinse them in the middle of the night, and “The smell gets so heavy outside you feel like you have to vomit.” Of course rashes, respiratory problems, burning eyes, and nosebleeds are all medical symptoms we have heard before from other residents of oil and gas zones . The Cernys also report cracks in the structure of their home and dangerous truck traffic. We hear those complaints regularly also.

One thing that's different about the Cerny's case is that the state regulators have investigated and found the company in violation of the law, but the family is still reporting serious health symptoms. It's not clear from the article if the site is now complying with the law (but the law is not strong enough) or if the agency is not fully enforcing the law at this site.

The Cerny family lives a mile from what sounds from the article like an upstream oil storage and processing faclity. There are many other oil and gas facilities near their home in addition to this one.

According to the article, a Texas state inspector first visited this facility in August of 2012 and found that during a 12-hour period the facility emitted 42 pounds of benzene--more than four times what is permitted for the site. Benzene is a known carcinogen. The records also show emissions of hydrogen sulfide, which can also cause serious health impacts, at more than 100 times the permitted amount.  Other dangerous toxic pollutants detected included at elevated levels included toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, which in the near term cause respiratory problems and long term exposure can result in damage to the liver, kidney, and nervous system.

The article says that agency staff returned in September and once again found emissions that exceeded permitted levels. In October, state regulators met with company officials and an inspector visited the site again in December.

Yet here it is--April. Eight months after regulators found highly toxic air pollutants, and the Cernys are still experiencing serious health symptoms.

The toxic air pollutants from oil and gas operations are exactly why we need Congress to pass the BREATHE Act. The BREATHE Act (Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects Act) is sponsored by Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado. It would ensure that the oil and gas industry has to abide by the same restrictions on toxic air pollutants, like cancer-causing benzene, as any other industry. The BREATHE Act also adds hydrogen sulfide to the list of toxic air pollutants limited by the Clean Air Act. Under current law, hydrogen sulfide, although known to be fatal, is not legally considered to be a "hazardous air pollutant.”

Our laws should keep up with the enormous boom in oil and gas drilling in roughly 30 states that is threatening human health and the environment. NRDC showed that it is actually profitable for companies to control their air pollution in our report called Leaking Profits.

Please ask your Member of Congress to co-sponsor the BREATHE Act.

Texas regulators also need to protect air quality in Texas. No one should have to live with these levels of highly toxic air pollutants near their home. Elected officials and agencies should settle for nothing less than safe air.

By the way, the Cernys are mineral owners. Here is what Myra Cerny said about that: “Honestly, I could give a flip about our royalties. We want our health back. We want our air back.” I think many people share this view.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Policy Analyst, Land & Wildlife program

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