More than 44,000 people in east Houston, Texas were told to shelter in place early Thursday morning after a fire at a petrochemical storage facility sent benzene and other volatile organic compounds into the air posing dangerous health risks. The federal Chemical Safety board launched an investigation and National Guard troops were called in to establish perimeters around the Intercoastal Terminals Company in Deer Park, about 15 miles southeast of Houston.

The fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company broke out Sunday morning and spread through tanks that contained gasoline over the next three days before it was extinguished. A tall black plume of smoke hung over Houston for days. Residents who lived near the area reportedly experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. Several school districts in the area canceled classes Thursday and Friday citing “unfavorable air quality conditions.”

The Texas Environmental Protection Agency conducted air quality tests throughout Houston and reported “no levels of hazardous concentrations,” however the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a release saying that some parts of the city had concerningly high concentrations of benzene, a chemical derived from natural gas, crude oil or coal.

Both the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are waiting for test results on water samples to determine if waterways were affected, including the Houston Ship Channel.

Benzene is a known carcinogen that has been linked to blood cancers like acute myeloid lymphoma. According to the World Health Organization, “Benzene is a genotoxic carcinogen in humans and no safe level of exposure can be recommended. The risk of toxicity from inhaled benzene would be the same whether the exposure were indoors or outdoors.”

Sources:
Texas Tribune
WHO Guidelines
NBC News

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