What is in Chaco’s Air?

Update on the Counselor Air Monitoring Program
By Teresa Seamster, Counselor HIA-HNDA Committee

Air is usually invisible and unidentified until it goes into an EPA analysis lab and gets tagged as ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particle pollution – also known as PM or particulate matter.

What is PM2.5?
It is a microscopic particle—2.5 microns in width and almost 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. When levels are high, PM2.5 particles form a haze in the sky, making their way into people’s respiratory tracts and reaching the lungs. Often dubbed a silent killer, it is only in the past decade that we have begun to understand PM2.5 better—its sources and the long-term impacts on lung and heart diseases.

At the Navajo Counselor Chapter, sitting at the intersection of Highway 550 and the county road to Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the air looks clean and the wind often blows strongly across the mesas and through the valleys. But for the past 3 years, residents have complained of chest pain, headaches, coughing, wheezing, sinus problems and skin and eye irritation.

A look into a clear tube of air sampled outside the Chapter House shows a swarm of invisible gas sources for these health complaints:

VOCs: Sources are well pads, compressor stations, processing facility
Symptoms: headache, dizziness/Chronic Illness: leukemia

BTEX: Sources are well pads, compressor stations, processing facility
Symptoms: headache, irritation eyes & throat/chronic Illness: cancer, neurological

Formaldehyde: Sources are oil wells, compressors, processing facility
Symptoms: asthma, ENT irritation, memory loss/chronic illness: asthma, ecxema, throat cancer

Diesel Exhaust: Sources are truck traffic, oil wells, compressors
Symptoms: ENT irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea/chronic Illness: lung cancer

Ozone: created by reactions between VOCs and nitrogen oxides causes chest pain, coughing, ENT irritation, and leads to chronic lung disease and asthma.

PM2.5 : Sources are well pads, compressor stations, processing facility
Symptoms: asthma attacks, acute bronchitis, heart attacks/Chronic Illness: reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis, fatal heart attack.

Measuring the concentration of PM2.5 and understanding its sources is key to designing policies to control its presence in the air we breathe. Scientists believe there is no substitute for ground level monitoring, but on-ground monitoring of PM2.5 requires sophisticated equipment, sustained funding, technical know-how, and regulatory support that are still absent in most places.

Starting in April, the Counselor HIA-HNDA Committee received a grant of $10,000 from Sierra Club and deployed 16 indoor-outdoor monitors to 8 residential locations in the most heavily concentrated oil well portions within the chapter boundary. Every location was within a ¼ to 1 mile of an active well. The residents agreed to have 2 monitors to record minute-by-minute concentrations of PM2.5 inside and outside their houses for a minimum of 32 days. In addition, 4 locations were selected to take 24-hour Summa canister samples of outdoor air in the community and test for 15 different toxins (TO-15) and any tentatively identified compounds (TICs).

Results and final reports are expected in August, but one clear result was already recorded on May 2, 2018. The monitor screen at one location went RED sometime during the night and the family woke up to a hazardous level of PM2.5 and called the Chapter House as instructed. Kendra Pinto and myself went to the home about 2 hours later and the monitor had returned to a normal green, but the residents were experiencing shortness of breath, sore throats and a choking feeling.  We had advised them to leave the house for a few hours until the air inversion lifted, but it was cold and sleeting that day, so they remained at home, even though the indoor levels were hazardous.

The impacts of such “peak” exposures over years of well operations next to homes is increasingly well documented.  Residents suffer a range of respiratory, neurological, neonatal, and dermatological symptoms that can escalate into chronic illnesses and birth defects over time. The economic impact on those with symptoms in terms of personal debilitation, lost work hours, health costs, trips to the doctor, inability to concentrate and remember, and loss of school days is cumulative and severe.

In this context, the health committee and Counselor residents are working to inform other chapters and the Navajo Tribal Council, BLM, BIA and NM Oil Conservation Division of the harm caused bytheir decisions to continue leasing more parcels for oil drilling near rural communities.

Photo: Summa canister sampling 1/10thmile from large oil well complex
Note: HIA-HNDA means Health Impact Assessment/Hozhogoo’na’ada

What is in Chaco’s Air?
Tagged on: