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.