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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Texas A&M: Researchers investigate Environmental and Health Implications of Petrochemical Plant Fire

On March 17, a fire broke out at the International Terminals Co. (ITC) petrochemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, sending a large plume of smoke into the air and triggering multiple shelter-in-place warnings for residents in nearby communities. The chemicals released during the ITC incident raise concerns about the short- and long-term health risks for people near the plant and the effectiveness of efforts to communicate risks to the public.

Dr. Garett Sansom, of the Texas A&M School of Public Health, led an effort to collect air, water and soil samples in communities around the ITC plant. The research team is part of the Texas A&M University Superfund Research Center. Soil and water sample analyses are still being conducted, but air samples indicated elevated levels of benzene and total volatile organic compounds. These kinds of exposures are what you expect in an occupational setting, where respirators and other personal protective equipment are available, but few residents had access to this sort of gear. Researchers plan to continue the monitoring of soil and water and levels inside homes in these communities and  are also investigating how effectively authorities were at communicating risks to the public during the ITC fire.

“We need better & smarter risk communication and avenues to improve relationships between industry and surrounding communities,” Dr. Sansom said. “A long-term longitudinal study needs to be conducted looking into the effects of the ITC incident and ongoing exposure to hazardous chemicals in nearby communities.”

Better monitoring of soil, air and water and improved understanding of long-term effects of pollution on the environment and human health are vital first steps in tackling this public health issue.