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Chemical Fires Leave Texas Residents Worrying About Toxicity

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In the town of Baytown Texas, houses stand near chemical storage tanks and refinery smoke stacks run by Arkema, a chemical plant company, according to npr.com.

Hurricane Harvey left the plant flooded with 50 inches of rain, and the chemicals caught fire. Arkema is now locked in a lawsuit with the residents of Baytown, the reason being that the company failed to state the dangers of breathing the smoke released by the burning chemicals, according to googlenews.com.

The facility works to manufacture and stores organic peroxides, which are used in plastic manufacturing. These chemicals need to be kept at a very specific temperature, or they become combustible. The flood knocked out the plant’s power and the chemicals heated up until they eventually burst into flames, according to cnbc.com.

A company spokeswoman says Arkema rejects the claims that it failed to warn people about the danger from the smoke. The company also said it urged people to heed evacuation orders, the local authorities also evacuated a 1.5 mile radius around the plant.

“What I know from doing research is these things are going to catch on fire. They’re going to burn with intensity. Most of the material is going to be consumed by very hot fire. From what I have researched and understand, the byproducts of that is going to be black smoke with carbon particles in it,” stated Bob Royall, the assistant chief of emergency operations for the Harris County Fire Marshall’s office, according to npr.com.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said “exposure to smoke from these organic peroxides is similar to standing over a campfire.”

On Thursday, October 31, Shannan Wheeler, a local resident 3 miles from the plant, noticed a stench. “The first smell I got was like battery acid,” he said, “later it changed to something like bleach and ammonia,” as reported by npr.org.

“Well, next morning we came out and that’s when we noticed these black oily splotches in this flower bed,” Wheeler said, “They were bubbly and black, different from anything I’ve seen before. They looked like they collected where the dew was.” For the next few days, this continued to happen, a thick plastic smell, followed by oil like splotches of  Wheelers lawn.

Arkema decided to ignite the rest of the chemicals that didn’t burn in order to ensure safety of the plant. A company statement said that it was the only way to be sure that the hazard posed by the unstable chemicals had “been fully eliminated,” according to arkema.com.

Wheeler stated he began to mow his lawn after the fires had stopped. “I wear a respirator, for grass allergies, so I didn’t notice anything while I was mowing,” he picked up the cut grass “I was wearing gloves, and back behind the gauntlet of the glove, up on my wrist and everything, it was starting to sting a little bit, like I was in ants,” it began to grow in intensity and eventually a rash sprout on his arm.

“Another four, five, six handfuls of grass and [I thought], ‘This is bothering me!’ I looked, and I noticed welts coming up along my wrists, down my thumbs, on both hands,” “I’ve had enough training from my work that I thought, ‘These look like chemical burns,” stated Wheeler.

He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with dermatitis, or skin irritation, caused by chemical exposure.

“We deeply regret that anyone experienced temporary ill effects from this incident, particularly first responders who worked with us side-by-side to keep the public safe. However, we reject any suggestion that Arkema failed to warn of the danger of breathing smoke from the fires at the Crosby plant. Arkema officials urged the public, for their own safety, to respect the 1.5-mile evacuation zone imposed by the Unified Command well before any fire. It is also our understanding that those first responders who went to a hospital were released without being admitted to the hospital. Arkema will vigorously defend against any lawsuit we believe is mistaken in its claims,” stated Arkema’s formal statement about the event.

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Chemical Fires Leave Texas Residents Worrying About Toxicity