Network watches out for public health

By Teresa Seamster, Northern New Mexico Group Chair

In the past two years, state environmental organizations and medical practitioners and researchers have found a common sector of growing concern — the impacts of environmental pollution on public health.

Northern New Mexico Group members Denise Fort and Teresa Seamster are members of the Environmental Public Health Network, with projects in water quality and community impacts planned for 2020.

At a recent network gathering in Albuquerque, keynote speaker Ruth A. Etzel M.D, Ph.D., presented a number of tragic examples of toxic environmental exposure affecting New Mexico children. Possibly the most shocking case was the accidental poisoning of a large rural family given some unlabeled grain, tainted with mercury, which they fed to hogs that were also their family’s food supply.

After three months, the three youngest children fell gravely ill — all became weak and were unable to walk or talk. The youngest daughter became permanently blind. The other children and parents did not suffer serious side effects, but the levels of mercury in the youngest and smallest were high enough to cause lifelong catastrophic effects.

This cautionary tale from Alamogordo decades ago, is being repeated in varying degrees today throughout New Mexico.

Oil and gas methane emissions are at an all-time high in the Permian and San Juan Basins. Childhood asthma has doubled since 2015 to almost 50,000 cases in the state, and billions of gallons of radioactive produced water from fracking operations are being injected into wells and held in impoundment ponds while the New Mexico Environment Department studies how to safely dispose of this new hazardous fluid.

New Mexico has a long history of legacy waste from the mining industry, the contamination from two national laboratories, the Air Force bases, and the oil and gas fields. Rural communities are often the most impacted and the least served by medical facilities equipped to provide testing, diagnosis or treatment to residents exposed to toxic emissions or contaminated water or soil.

As the Trump administration seeks to reverse Environmental Protection Agency climate safeguards, health impacts from climate disruption are another common concern for medical practitioners and environmental groups.

Srikanth Paladugu, chief of the Environment Department’s Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau, spoke to the Environmental Public Health Network gathering about new climate-related illnesses that are also on the rise. Heat stroke, dehydration and accidental death due to outdoor occupations of firefighting, forestry, agriculture, ranching, pipeline and highway construction are affecting greater numbers of employees in these areas.

The body of research tying public-health impacts to the still growing oil and gas development in New Mexico is also increasing. The use of FLIR (optical gas imaging) cameras by thermographers working for environmental groups such as Earthworks now is able to document specific venting and gas leaks from well equipment and provide accurate emission violations when filing complaints with the state Environment Department.

In one day in October, certified thermographers filmed seven well locations in Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties that violated operational standards.

The rural Navajo chapters of Counselor, Navajo City and Nageezi were all areas being polluted with these illegal well emissions that are invisible to the eye. Routine well inspectors, who rely on smell and visible emissions, could not have detected these violations.

The Environmental Health Network is made up of concerned professionals and practitioners who are working to document and mitigate the impacts of environmental pollutants on New Mexicans. The network seeks to protect public health through educational advocacy for environmental policies that affect New Mexican communities and encourage a diversity of viewpoints.

Featured image by Photo by Miya King-Flaherty; infrared cameras can show methane and volatile organic compound leaks that are invisible to the naked eye. 

Network watches out for public health