Life in the Oilfields – The health impacts of oilfields

Dr. Edward Brooks
Physician with the University of Texas - San Antonio and specialist in Allergy & Immunology

Would you be willing to live next to a refinery or one of these high production areas?

Hell no! – Dr. Brooks

The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Dr. Brooks a physician and specialist in immunology. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. The full interview can be found HERE

This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.

Environment Texas: Can you go over a little bit of the effects of living near oil pads or production sites, especially if they’re leaking, methane and some of the other chemicals into the air? 

Dr. Brooks: From what I know, from what I’ve read and reported on previously, so at exploration sites or drilling sites, it seems that in order of importance, I think the hydrogen sulfide gas is likely the most important pollutant. And I actually recently had a patient who worked in that area, and he verified that, yes, it’s a toxic environment, SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide), is also a byproduct. But those are the sort of the main ones in production areas, my understanding. 

Environment Texas: We have some of these sites that are going up where we’ve got drilling stations within, say, a half mile school. We’ve got these young kids at schools who are right next to these sites. What would be the impact that you would expect or be concerned about? 

Dr. Brooks: Well, SO2 has been fairly well studied, and it’s an airway irritant and high concentrations, eye watering, et cetera, and respiratory illness. Long term exposure is probably the biggest risk. And that’s what I’ve studied a lot. I used to be in Galveston. So we studied the refineries in Houston and Texas City. But SO2 gas has been reported to cause some developmental problems in high concentrations. So that would be a major concern if the levels are high enough and acute exposures, the acute respiratory illness, et cetera. But the long term exposures, too. SO2 more into the respiratory illnesses and airway irritation and worsening of asthma and the H2S, probably developmental problems. If you smell it, you’re being exposed to it. So you do have some kind of internal alarm there. But even below the smell level, people have reported some health effects from chronic exposure. 

Environment Texas: We’ve had reports of people saying, my kids have chronic headaches, they’ve got chronic nosebleeds and that these symptoms get worse during high flaring times. Could you talk about some of those impacts from the flaring and from the refineries? 

Dr. Brooks: Obviously, you get production of combusted products such as oxides and nitrogen, and that may increase the ozone and other co-pollutants at that time. The airway irritation certainly can result from multiple different contaminants coming from petrochemical refineries. And then there’s more subtle effects, such as benzene, which increases the risk of leukemia. And the toxicologists will say it’s a lifetime exposure. In other words, opening the doors and windows helps clear it out, but you’ve been exposed to that, so it’s accumulative. So if you live in an area your whole life, and a lot of low income areas around refineries, people don’t have a whole lot of choices with their income levels, and low income housing in those areas get a lifetime exposure. And this has been shown over in multiple studies. The closer you live to a petrochemical plant, the higher the rates of leukemia and lymphoma. 

Environment Texas: So this would kind of go back to Cancer Alley in Louisiana and some of the other cancer clusters that we’re seeing.

Dr. Brooks: Yeah, along the Houston Ship Channel. It was named the Leukemia Belt many years ago. A study by the UT School of Public Health back in the 70s identified this. And even though the refineries over the years have improved, it appears that the ambient levels of benzene in the state of the Houston Ship Channel area are reduced overall. They’re still elevated above ambient, and so they still contribute to a lifetime exposure to things like benzene. 

Environment Texas: I was in Odessa recently, and one of the things I heard was, well, I’ve been living here for 50 years, and it’s never bothered me. What would be your response to people saying, well, I’m okay, so obviously there’s not a problem. 

Dr. Brooks: Well, let’s measure him, right? Do we have data on him that there really is no effect? And again, adding these comorbidities is really the secret. People who develop COPD that never smoked, what is it? Well, it’s most likely the exposure to indoor outdoor air pollutants. Not everyone develops COPD. And again, it’s hard to ascribe it directly to one individual. And so I discount those and say, well, that’s fine, right? It’s not scientific. It’s just anecdotal. 

Environment Texas: Would you be willing to live next to a refinery or one of these high production areas?

Dr. Brooks: Hell no!

I have a lot of knowledge about it, and I know there are significant health risks. I would never raise my children in that environment either, but that goes to the environmental justice. I can afford not to. And I pay attention to the air quality. And when I left Galveston, even though Galveston, relatively speaking, had prevailing winds from the south, and we weren’t as impacted by the refineries in the winter, wind comes in the other direction, and we would joke, Texas City is here today, or Chocolate Bayou or wherever the wind was coming from. And so I wouldn’t even dream of being that close. And I think in a better regulated community that we don’t have in Texas, we would have buffer zones and a lot more. We wouldn’t put low income housing right because the land is cheap. It’s obvious. It’s right adjacent to the plants in Texas City and put a lot of parks and stuff. I think it’s wrong just from what we know, it’s not a good idea. And of course, when there are significant events of explosions or high releases from accidents, those people are at very high risk of getting exposed. 

Environment Texas: The legislative response and some of the regulatory response to non attainment has been, well, EPA only has three monitors in Texas, and we know it’s all coming from Mexico anyway. Do those arguments hold any weight? 

Dr. Brooks: No. Okay. In modeling, yeah. You have to account for other sources. But the transport of most pollutants, by the time they came from Mexico, they’re degraded. They are gone. Okay? So they react in the atmosphere in particular, like when they burn the fields in Mexico. There was one year when they were burning the fields in Mexico, and we had a whole lot of Mexican smoke coming across the border and into Texas. And so I was looking at the data and looking at the fine particulate levels that people were experiencing. And when they interviewed me, they had a biologist they were interviewing, and it was the worst disaster we’ve ever experienced with all the blah, blah, blah. And they asked me, and I said, well, it’s like a bad day in Houston.