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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 caused symptoms 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.”
SoCalGas, however, has failed to provide a conclusive explanation for residents’ illnesses. At a protest on Friday, March 4, which culminated outside the company’s Community Resource Center located in Porter Ranch’s main shopping center, SoCalGas spokeswoman Lisa Alexander spoke to Anti-Media about the reemergence of symptoms. She left the onus of responsibility on the Department of Public Health.
“You know, we recognize that people are saying that they have symptoms, and we hear that, we see the news stories, we’ve been in touch with Department of Public Health to inquire about that,” she said, adding that Public Health expected symptoms to decrease as the blowout’s emissions dissipated — and with them, the mercaptans.
As the legal battle continues, the difficulties of obtaining comprehensive, reliable air tests remain complicated by the fact that humans can smell mercaptans at lower levels than equipment can detect them. Pakucko told Anti-Media residents have consistently been reporting the smell of mercaptans, though SoCalGas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey assured Anti-Media via email there were no current leaks.