FORT WORTH — Last summer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began testing to figure out what's coming out of natural gas facilities in the Barnett Shale.
On Wednesday, the commission offered some answers.
Scientists revealed potentially hazardous levels of benzene were found in the air at or near about half of the 44 facilities included in the study. They caution, however, that some of the facilities are very close together, so it wasn't always possible to figure out which one was releasing the toxin.
"All of our focus right now — in terms of monitoring staff, field investigation staff, air component — are focused squarely on this issue," said TCEQ deputy director John Sadlier.
Benzene levels above the commission's benchmark for long-term health concerns, which address levels breathed for years, were found on the northwest edge of Fort Worth, in Justin, Springtown, White Settlement, the Cresson/Godley area, Bridgeport, and Arlington. The Arlington site was near an oil rig.
As previously reported by News 8, two facilities — both west of DISH in Wise County — revealed the highest readings, prompting immediate action by the state. A sample at one of the sites indicated a benzene level of 15,000 parts per billion.
Dr. Martyn Smith, a nationally recognized expert on benzene health effects, puts that in perspective. "Something above 5 to 10 parts per billion, I would start to become concerned that there would be potential health effects, or certainly an increased risk of health effects," he said. "That would concern me."
Children are more vulnerable than adults. "Children would be more sensitive, especially if they were exposed as a fetus in the womb and then early in life," Dr. Smith said. "We should be especially concerned about contaminated environments for pregnant women and very young children. "
TCEQ is doing more testing, to figure out what the average levels of benzene are year round in various locations.
Dr. Smith estimates it takes from five to 10 years to develop serious problems, like leukemia, from elevated benzene levels. The time and amount of exposure required are different for every person.
"Scientists think there’s really no safe level of benzene," Dr. Smith said.