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Atmosphere of concern

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Rebekah Sheffield's home
Rebekah Sheffield and her husband moved to Dish in 1996,
with dreams of restoring a 100-year-old farmhouse. Today,
their home, shown March 17, is surrounded by the town’s
many natural gas production facilities.
Photo: DRC/Barron Ludlum

From the US's Denton Record-Chronicle:


Atmosphere of concern

Residents of Dish feel change in air

By Elizabeth Smith / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
11:32 PM CDT on Saturday, March 26, 2011

DISH — A mother directs her four children about the living room, helping each to comb through an assortment of papers, books, blankets and clothing. One child closes a cardboard box and carries it upstairs to a spare bedroom, already stacked high with boxes and plastic bins filled with shoes, craft supplies and keepsakes. The door to the adjacent room — the library — remains shut, the books since removed from shelves and poured into boxes that fill the room. More boxes spill out into the upstairs hallway.

In one of her rare trips upstairs to her boys’ room, Rebekah Sheffield notices a bottle collection that sits on the shelf. “I thought I told him to pack those up,” she huffs.

Since July, the Sheffields have been packing to leave their home in the country. They look forward to the day the house will be left in the rearview mirror. But outside, no moving truck waits in the driveway. No “For Sale” sign sits in the grass. The family has neither sold their home nor bought another.

They have nowhere to go.

Downstairs, boxes line the kitchen and sit atop shelves encircling the dining room. Nearly every crevice in their home has been filled with moving boxes, each neatly stacked and labeled with its contents.

The Sheffield family is packing up 15 years’ worth of belongings, collecting the items that can be stored away and keeping the necessities out, for now.

They want to be ready. They hope to move far away from Dish, far enough to escape the pollution.


The first wells were drilled across the street from the Sheffields’ home in 1998, two years after the family moved to Dish.

The tiny town of 201, about 10 miles southwest of Denton, first gained notoriety in 2005 when town leaders changed its name from Clark to Dish in exchange for a decade of free satellite television for residents. The battle between L.E. Clark, the man who helped incorporate the town in 2000, and the mayor at the time, Bill Merritt, brought national attention, with the dueling officials roasted on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

But the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland shows another Dish — a place transformed from a peaceful, rural community to the Grand Central Station of the Barnett Shale.


Each day, Dish officials estimate, about 1 billion cubic feet of gas travels through three metering stations, more than 20 major gas gathering pipelines and 11 compression plants that have been shoehorned into the town’s two square miles by energy companies. 

The Sheffields are among many residents who have lodged complaints with local, state and federal officials about the noise and odors coming from facilities so loosely regulated that toxic emissions, whether the release is intentional or accidental, go unreported and uncounted.

When the wind blows from the compressor stations to the southeast and emissions are high — leaving a strangely sweet odor hanging in the air — those are the days Rebekah Sheffield and her family feel the worst. Her husband, Warren, frequently checks the readings of a new state air ambient monitor online. When the wind is blowing from the southeast, he often finds that the ambient air levels of the 46 toxic compounds being monitored are higher than normal.

“We know that we just can’t stay — for our health,” Warren Sheffield says. “Every day here we feel worse. Every day we’re a little bit sicker. We’re going to have to do something.”

But with their house in disrepair and the prospect of finding a buyer unlikely, the Sheffields say they feel trapped.


Rebekah and Warren Sheffield moved to Dish in 1996 after buying a century-old farmhouse. The couple says they dreamed of restoring it by hand and raising their children. It was a place where she could breathe in the fresh air — until the gas wells were drilled across the street.

Rebekah Sheffield first noticed changes in her body the following year when she reacted to fragrances, particularly perfumes and detergents, she says. A whiff of someone’s perfume sent her stumbling to the floor. She fainted at ballgames, in the grocery store, even while sitting in the pew at church.

Her physician, Dr. Tod Heldridge, prescribed a battery of allergy medications, though they did little to lessen her symptoms. When her condition worsened in 2003, she consulted a neurologist, but tests found no brain lesions or tumors. In 2004, she sought out an allergist, but no combination of pills or nasal sprays substantially quelled her symptoms. The next year, she saw another specialist to treat her constant state of vertigo, but tests were inconclusive. Rebekah Sheffield’s instability was very real to her husband, who grew frustrated that he could not catch his wife when she fell. Finally, in her early 30s, she purchased a wheelchair.

Rebekah Sheffield learned the hard way that soaps and detergents will give her chemical burns up to her elbows. In place of shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream and deodorant, she must create her own toiletries using a combination of natural products including cornstarch, baking soda, lemon juice and sugar.

Unable to determine either the specific cause or an effective treatment for her condition, Heldridge diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivity. The medical community does not accept the diagnosis as a legitimate medical condition, with debate both over its existence and if symptoms are triggered from exposure to chemicals.

“Nobody really knows why this happens,” said Heldridge. “If medicine does not recognize the cause for something, doctors will doubt it’s real. It’s an easy way to say, ‘I can’t figure it out.’”

Because there is no accepted definition, the descriptions for the kinds of symptoms and types of chemical exposures can vary. Chemicals in the environment and in everyday materials such as cleaning supplies and fragrances may cause a reaction similar to that of an allergic reaction, triggering headaches, rashes, asthma, muscle and joint aches, fatigue and memory loss.

“If you can expose them to chemicals over and over, there’s something there,” said Heldridge. “We’re just not smart enough to figure out what’s causing it.”

As Rebekah Sheffield’s reactions increase, the things she cannot do far outnumber those things she can, even daily and leisure activities.

She schools her two younger children at home and tries to provide for all four. Yet her fatigue makes her the dependent. The youngest child gives her medicine with a glass of water. On Wednesday nights, her husband must return home from work soon after the kids leave for church. The family cannot leave her for more than 30 minutes in case of a reaction.

She avoids the hair salon, lest a shampoo or spray triggers a reaction. She went months without a haircut after her hairstylist was no longer available for home visits. Finally, last fall, she braved the salon on a Tuesday morning. She was lucky — she was the only customer at the time.

The self-identified bibliophile stopped reading because she couldn’t concentrate and focus on the small text.

The moving boxes labeled “unread books” remain untouched.


Rebekah Sheffield says she tried to learn to live with her condition, thinking she had no other options.

Meanwhile, town officials had arranged for the Texas Department of State Health Services to come investigate effects the gas industry’s emissions could be having on the residents’ health.

In 2009, town officials spent 15 percent of the town’s annual budget on an independent air quality test that found benzene, xylene, naphthalene, carbon disulfide and other chemicals at elevated levels. With those findings, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national, nonprofit watchdog group, surveyed Dish residents for health effects. Of the 31 who participated, they reported 165 different medical conditions, and 61 percent of those health effects — including frequent sinus infections, nosebleeds, headaches, persistent coughs and irritated eyes — could be associated with the toxic compounds found in the air.

State health and environmental officials agreed, initially, to work together. In the end, only the health department came.

Rebekah Sheffield was one of 28 residents who participated in the state’s study. That study took blood and urine samples in January 2010 and looked for the presence of volatile organic compounds associated with shale gas drilling and production.


The full article can be found here.


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