A chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, a town near Houston, caught on fire on Sunday, March 17, and despite the fact that the fire was put out on Wednesday, March 20, residents are being warned to seek shelter and stay inside. The fire released an excess of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, into the air.
The official Deer Park government Twitter account released the following statement:
A Shelter-in-Place has been issued for the City of Deer Park following reports of action levels of benzene or other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within city limits. State Highway 225 is also being closed at this time from Beltway 8 to Miller Cut-Off Road. […] Residents are advised to remain indoors and to close all doors, windows and other sources of outside air. Turn off air conditioning or heating systems and close the fireplace damper to keep chemical vapors from entering.
The shelter-in-place order is so serious that if you’re in Deer Park currently, away from your own home, they suggest seeking “nearest enclosed structure, whether it’s a house, business, garage or vehicle.” That’s serious. That’s “the air has cancer in it, get away from the air”-level of panic.
The building in question is home to a petrochemical storage plant named Intercontinental Terminals Company, and according to CBS News, the company has a history of environmental violations. Despite the prolonged burning and the government warning, the plant issued a statement maintaining that atmospheric benzene levels are “below those that represent an immediate risk,” according to the BBC.
According to the National Institutes of Health, benzene is “[t]oxic, volatile, flammable liquid hydrocarbon byproduct of coal distillation.” Exposure can cause, “central nervous system damage acutely and bone marrow damage chronically and is carcinogenic.”