When your kids head out to the school playground for recess, you expect them to jump rope, play tag, or swing on the swings. You don’t expect them to be exposed to harmful air pollution that puts their health and safety at risk. But that’s what’s happing to 2,944,785 children who are attending a school or a daycare near oil and gas facilities.
In the beautiful rolling hills of rural Western Pennsylvania, you can find natural gas facilities littering the landscape where Jane Worthington and her daughter Alexis Elliot live. Tragically, Alexis is one of many children attending school surrounded by many natural gas facilities.
These are industrial facilities where huge 125ft tall rigs drill deep into the ground to release the trapped natural gas. This exposes the children to air pollutants such as methane, diesel exhaust, particulate matter, benzene, and compounds that cause smog.
But in the craze that fracking has become, protections for children’s health are secondary to the oil and gas industry’s profits.
Jane’s training as a nurse makes her especially tuned into her daughter’s health. “At first, when Lexi was 10 years old, she developed asthma like conditions then rashes and infected eyes. Then she had gastrointestinal issues, bullseye rashes, and swelling of the joints…and lots of uncontrolled bloody noses,” said Jane who was dumbfounded as to the cause of Alexis’s symptoms. Alexis was sent to a toxicologist to test for chemical exposures and Jane was stunned to learn that her daughter had tested positive for benzene exposure exceeding the allowable limit for her age. Jane knew that “Any time you’re benzene exposed, chances of cancer increase 85% in someone’s lifetime. Some people can flush their systems. Alexis, evidently, cannot.”
It was Alexis’s health problems that made Jane take notice of her children’s environment. Jane noticed the natural gas well pads going up approximately a half mile from her daughter’s school building and realized that Alexis’s ongoing symptoms coincided with the cycle of gas well development. “When there was no development, Alexis was not symptomatic although her on going joint problems still continued.”
When Jane explains how much drilling activity has happened near Lexi’s school, it boggles the mind. “We have 3 well pads approximately a half mile away from the school building. On each well pad you can have multiple wells and currently there are 20 wells surrounding the school along with pipelines and supporting infrastructure. Oh, and don’t forget there is always the threat of more wells to be added to the existing pads.”
Jane never anticipated her community would turn into an industrial zone and risk the health of the local children, but she was not willing to sit down and watch it happen.
“I follow what the Indians say. A tribal leader said if Father Sky or Mother Earth are sick, it will make the people sick. God gave us a beautiful place to live; if we sicken it, we’re sickening everything.”
Jane met with her school board and local elected officials to voice her concerns. “It just doesn’t make sense to place this industrial operation with health and safety risks so close to children who are vulnerable to air pollution. As adults, we have a moral obligation to protect children.” However, Jane quickly found her community divided between those who wanted to protect children’s health and those who supported the gas industry’s efforts to develop the land surrounding the school for financial or political gain – a community divided.
Jane’s spirituality helps sustain her during the tough times. “I have to rely on my faith for strength because you can get torn down and discouraged. I have to think about the bigger picture as to why I really do what I do, which is to protect everyone, not just my own daughter.”
Jane joined Moms Clean Air Force to fight for air pollution safeguards at the state and federal levels for all children. She now speaks at many events.
“Each time I speak, I pray that I say the right things that will help influence somebody. I think faith plays a much bigger role than people think. My spiritual belief has carried through all of this. People forget that in order to attack anything you have to have faith that you’re doing the right thing.”