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Environment & Science

FAQ: Scientists highlight 44 prevalent toxic chemicals in Los Angeles

The downtown L.A. skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset.
The downtown L.A. skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset.
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Air regulators here in Southern California have been tracking the chemicals companies use in oil and gas exploration around Los Angeles.

In a new report, four environmental groups crunched this data to find that 44 toxic chemicals have been used in dozens of instances, often near homes, schools, and hospitals. 

RELATED: Report lists toxic chemicals used in local oil and gas operations

KPCC's environment correspondent Molly Peterson joins Take Two with an explainer. 

Who made this report, and why? 

"A year ago, the South Coast Air Quality Management District required companies to tell regulators when they were going to look for oil and gas using very specific methods in urban areas. After the fact, the companies were supposed to report what chemicals they used to get the oil and gas out. These four enviro groups — Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center for Biological Diversity and others — found more than 15,000 instances where companies disclosed chemicals used in their activities. More than 30 percent of those chemicals are regulated air toxics."

What are these chemicals and how are they being used?

"Crystalline silica, which is a naturally occurring dust they call "frac sand, and they use it in fracking and other operations. But when its airborne it's very fine and it can get into your lungs and it can create silicosis, which is a preventable, but incurable lung disease. The kinds of operations we're talking about are not just fracking, but its the thing that people think about first.

"We're talking about shooting stuff into the ground to make the oil and gas come out more easily. So that includes fracking, a process called acidization and another one called gravel packing. Just about 14 of these incidents were fracking as people know it from the movies and all the discussion about it. Mostly what we see in Southern California is acidizing, where something like a hydrochloric acid is part of the mix and it helps break down the softer pieces of the rock creating channels for the oil and gas to come out. 

What do we know about people's actual exposure to these chemicals?

"Not much. For one thing, nobody's monitoring specifically for these chemicals at these sites, and there are no documented human health impacts. In fact, there's a lot about what these companies do that we don't know a lot about. I mentioned those 15,000 instances where they reported what chemicals were used...on top of that there was another 5,000 instances of these kinds of activities where these companies refuse to identify the chemical used on the grounds that they were trade secrets. But up to a third of those secret chemicals were air toxics."

Can they refuse to identify those chemicals? 

"Maybe. It's in dispute. The idea of these disclosure rules on a state and local level is to make this all more clear for people. It's kind of confusing though, the state rule SB4, which requires some disclosure of this stuff, operates a little bit differently than this, which is just a lot of information gathering right now for the AQMD."

What do regulators or the oil and gas industry say about this?

"The first phase of this rule, which is called 1148, is to gather data for two years before decided whether and how to regulate and where there are problems. I also talked to somebody, Collin Maynard, at the Western States Petroleum Association, and he says oil and gas exploration has been here for a century, and it takes place day in and day out in the most heavily regulated environment in the world and it takes place without harm to the environment and communities.

"These groups aren't so sure that they agree with that. Obviously they raise questions about how we think about these chemicals in our communities, not just in these operations in this limited way, but these chemicals come into the oil and gas operations in these urban areas as well that we're not tracking at all and these chemicals are in trucks, on our roads on the way to these facilities. Should we be concerned about that? They're just trying to raise some questions about it."