After earlier assurances that the dark plume of smoke from a petrochemical fire outside Houston wasn’t a health hazard, the City of Deer Park told residents to shelter in place Thursday because of high levels of benzene in the air.
Florian Martin of Houston Public Media says Intercontinental Terminals Company, which owns the petrochemical facility, said the benzene levels were high because of a leak that occurred when it was pumping the remaining chemicals out of the burned tanks.
“They called it a precaution, so some school districts were closed yesterday,” Martin says.
He says Harris County officials said that the benzene levels were higher than their normal standards, but that the benzene shouldn’t cause health problems. But environmental groups have reported area residents complaining of symptoms like headaches, nausea and nosebleeds, Martin says.
Some chemicals went into the Houston Ship Channel after the fire, too, Martin says, but water-test results aren’t yet available. He says officials have told those in the area north of Highway 225, just south of the plant, to test the water before drinking.
Martin says many are confused by the series of conflicting reports about health risks from the fire.
“This is like the never-ending story, it seems,” Martin says. “Everybody was really relieved when the fire was finally put out on Wednesday morning, but then, of course, we had the shelter-in-place the next day with the benzene leak.”
He says few trust the assurances from the company, ITC, or county health officials.
“No one knows what the long-term affects will be,” Martin says.
Even though the plume of smoke stayed high in the atmosphere, and likely far from air that residents breathe, he’s heard anecdotally that some have had respiratory symptoms.
“Some ENTs had patients telling them that their allergies flared up during this time, all week long,” Martin says. “There’s definitely an ongoing concern about what all this has done.
The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Written by Caroline Covington.