Eight years ago, a lightning strike at a natural gas facility in Eight Mile, AL, ruptured a mercaptan storage tank. Over the next six months, an estimated 500 gallons of the chemical, used as an odorant added to natural gas to help detect leaks, seeped into the soil and groundwater.
Not long after, residents of the community began to experience health problems including respiratory issues, headaches, nausea, rashes and nosebleeds. Residents in Porter Ranch, CA experienced the same health issues after a natural gas tank ruptured last year spilling roughly 100,000 metric tons of methane -the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history.
Unlike Porter Ranch, where residents were relocated after the spill, Eight Mile residents have largely been ignored. Mobile Gas Service Corp., which owned the facility at the time of the spill, said it hired companies to clean it up, and they failed. The rotten egg stench of the mercaptan still hangs in the air as reports of health issues mount.
What is Mercaptan
Mercaptan is a class of chemicals that are organosulfur compounds. Because they have a strong odor of rotten eggs, they and are added as odorants to odorless gasses. It has not been considered a hazardous substance but experts agree that more information is needed about the health effects of long-term exposure.
Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, an urgent care physician in Porter Ranch, told the Los Angeles Times that he has been conducting research on mercaptan’s health effects since the leak in Porter Ranch. “Mercaptan is toxic to the human body,” Nordella told the paper. “The question is exposure — how much and for how long?”
Exposure to high levels of the chemical has killed at least three workers including a 53-year-old who fell into a coma and then died after he opened and emptied tanks of the compound in 1970; a 19-year-old who died 45 minutes after exposure to the chemical in 1979; and a 24-year-old found dead at a chemical factory in 2001 who was found to have large quantities of the chemical in his liver, kidneys, lungs, blood and urine, according to the paper.
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