Mercaptans in Industrial Leaks Making Locals Sick


Few people realized just how dangerous being located to a natural gas storage facility could be until the methane leak in Los Angeles started three months ago. Within a week, those who lived close by began reporting severe health issues such as rashes, hives, nausea/vomiting, coughing up blood, headaches, and nosebleeds. And the gas company doesn’t think that the flow of gas can be stemmed until late February.

Specifically, the symptoms are due to what are known as mercaptans: sulfurous chemicals added to natural gas in order to assist with leak detection. Some of those include methyl mercaptan, ethyl mercaptan, propyl mercaptan, isopropyl mercaptan, and t-butyl mercaptan, as well as another odorant: tetrahydrothiophene. People can smell and react to concentrations of less than one part per billion, while the current leak appears to be around 2.5 to 5 parts per billion. Often times, those who become severely ill and die due to mercaptan exposure are industrial workers who inhale methyl mercaptan from open storage tanks and fall into a coma. In particular, anyone with a pre-existing medical condition may be more susceptible to related illnesses.

Not Enough Mercaptans Studies

Although some health officials have indicated that there are no long-term negative effects of mercaptans, others are skeptical due to the lack of long-term studies on the chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the states do not have public health guidelines in place to address mercaptan exposure.

The issue also applies to Louisiana, as mercaptans are associated with oil spills and other industrial accidents, and they are simply accepted as odorizers. Regulators have not prepared for long-term exposures through natural gas leaks, but rather only exposure limits created for workers in industrial settings. This leaves people with respiratory illnesses, children, and pregnant women especially vulnerable.

And yet, existing peer-reviewed studies have indicated that people who live closer to t-butyl mercaptan spills report significantly more health symptoms and other experts are strongly insisting that—in the face of a lack of data—regulators err on the side of caution.

Climate Footprint

Natural gas leaks like the one in Aliso Canyon, Los Angeles also leave huge climate footprints due to how dangerous methane gas is. It has been estimated that close to 100,000 metric tons of methane have been leaked since October 2015.

And what about other chemicals present in the natural gas? Some of these include benzene, toluene, and other toxics. Many families located within a half mile of pipelines and gas wells report wheezing, rashes, nausea, and other issues.

Environmental Hazard Attorneys

Sometimes, even facilities technically complying with environmental laws can harm people if there is a catastrophe, such as a leak. As a result, families and children can experience negative health effects—sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Harrell & Nowak have spent years litigating against these bad actors and negligent parties. We are proud to serve Louisiana as environmental hazard attorneys. Contact us today for a free consultation.