Earlier this week, a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility caught fire, resulting in what some local residents believed to be dangerous levels of airborne benzene. State officials were forced to summon National Guard troops to help secure the area and they warned residents to stay inside until the damage was cleared.
The fire began in Harris County, around the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, some 15 miles southeast of Houston. Because of the extent and size of the fire, the National Guard and other official hazardous materials teams established perimeters around the Park while firefighters battled the inferno. The fire, which started on Sunday, sent flames and huge plumes of dark smoke into the air for several days before crews could get it under control.
While the Texas Environmental Protection Agency said this
last Wednesday that airborne benzene levels did not pose a health concern to
the public, local authorities issued what is called a “shelter in place” order
early Thursday, warning residents to stay indoors as much as possible. Authorities
also stated that they had received "reports of action levels of benzene or
other volatile organic compounds" in and around Deer Park.
It was also reported that the fire had spread to large storage
tanks in the facility, holding components used to create various glues, paint
thinners, and nail polish remover. These materials are known to contain volatile
organic compounds, or VOC, which are also found in paints, solvents, and other
such materials. Volatile organic compounds are what give paints and other materials
their pungent odors and which bother sinuses during exposure.
Overexposure to VOC is hazardous to a person’s health, and
nearby residents apparently reported various symptoms of VOC overexposure,
including nausea, nosebleeds, and headaches. The Centers for Disease Control or
CDC reports that any long-term exposure to the chemicals in these materials can
cause serious and harmful side effects, including damage to a person’s bone
marrow. Persons handling materials containing VOC on a regular basis are often
required to wear appropriate breathing apparatus and other protective gear.
Despite the risk, the state’s Environmental Protection
Agency stated that they "measured no levels of hazardous concentrations"
of these materials, after having conducted test of air quality in and around the
Houston area. Despite their reassurances, residents expressed a lack of
confidence in their safety throughout the week. A representative of the local
Sierra Club even reported that some locals near the damaged facility
experienced headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds, indicating that the air was
perhaps not as clean as reported.
The Sierra Club representative also noted the potential
impact of the fire to surrounding industries, include fishing, if the chemicals
from the storage units or the foams used to put out the blaze were to leak into
the Houston Ship Channel and make their way into the Gulf of Mexico. Authorities
promised to continue testing the air quality and waters around the Houston Ship
Channel to ensure the health and safety of residents.