Destruction in chemical hub Houston raise post-hurricane health concerns

MILES O'BRIEN: Today's explosions at the Arkema chemical plant northeast of Houston are underscoring concerns about the hazards of dangerous chemicals in the area.

Houston is a major hub for refineries and has some of the largest petrochemical operations in the country.

Our science producer, Nsikan Akpan, has been looking into those concerns. He published a piece this week documenting some of the other leaks and ruptures in the region.

It is on our Web page.

Nsikan, tell us a little bit about what we know about Arkema, first of all, what is happening there.

NSIKAN AKPAN: So, Arkema produces organic peroxides, so these compounds that are used to make plastics.

And the thing is that they are inherently unstable. So, they tend to react with other elements in the environment. They are also very sensitive to the heat. So, Arkema was storing these compounds in refrigerated boxes. And when the power went out, the heat rose, it led to pressure to build, and you had this explosion.

MILES O'BRIEN: And, unfortunately, the backup systems didn't keep the materials cool, and hence you had this difficulty.

Let's listen basically to Richard Rennard, who is an executive with Arkema.

RICH RENNARD, Arkema: What we have is a fire. And when you have a fire where hydrocarbons, these chemicals, are burning, sometimes, you have incomplete combustion and you have smoke.

And any smoke will be an irritant to your eyes or your lungs or potentially your skin. So, if you are exposed to that, we certainly are encouraging anyone that may be exposed to the smoke coming from this fire to call their doctor or to seek medical advice.

MILES O'BRIEN: So, point well-taken. It's not as bad as an outright leak, I suppose, but, with the smoke, there is some concern, isn't there?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Exactly.

I mean, these compounds are corrosive, which means, like I said, they tend to react with things. So, they want to react to the water in your eyes. They want to react with the compounds in your skin.

And that might explain why 15 deputies from the sheriff's office were sent to the hospital, because, you know, potentially, they were exposed to this incomplete burn that he brought up.

MILES O'BRIEN: Good reason they have that mile-and-a-half zone around it where people shouldn't go in for now, until this gets sorted out.

Let's look at the bigger picture here. Houston, in general, huge petrochemical facilities, a number of them. You have had a chance to kind of look at the big picture. Tell us what people are looking at, what concerns there are.

NSIKAN AKPAN: So, the Sierra Club looked into EPA data, and they found that 170 chemical, petrochemical and also oil and gas hazardous waste facilities exist in Harris County, which is home to Houston.

Many of these facilities exist in floodplains. And we know that at least a dozen of them were damaged by the hurricane.

MILES O'BRIEN: Obviously, a lot of petrochemicals in Houston. Give us an idea of the types of concerns, the specific problems that can crop up.

NSIKAN AKPAN: So, it is known that petrochemical companies, that they have these emissions whenever they start up and shut down.

And so, before the hurricane even arrived, there were reports, regulatory filings by these companies showing that they were releasing hundreds of pounds of these chemicals into the air. But most of them were done in a controlled way, which isn't so much of a hazard to the environment.

If you leak these very slowly, they spread out in the air and they are not going to be toxic to somebody. What happened was, after the hurricane hit, there was so much rain, there was so much wind that there was damage to what are called floating roof tanks.

And so the floating roof tank is exactly what the name suggests, right? So you have a roof that moves up and down depending on how you fill the tank. And what that allows is, it allows for a certain amount of venting. It allows for a certain amount of the chemical to turn to vapor.

What happened was, at some of these facilities, these tanks took on so much water, that their roofs actually collapsed into the liquid that they were holding, which allowed the vapors to escape into the air.

MILES O'BRIEN: So, let's talk about other potential hazards. A lot of Superfund sites in Houston. What about those?

NSIKAN AKPAN: So, there about a dozen Superfund sites in Harris County.

Many are in the floodplains. And so far, Harris County has issued about 45 boil water advisories, and I think about — and there are about 160 issued for the state.

MILES O'BRIEN: OK. So you could ask the question, we knew a hurricane could hit Houston, of course. Are these facilities, when you look at the big picture, are they hardened enough against that threat?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Well, so, other studies have looked at these floating roof tanks and shown that, when hurricanes hit, that they do tend to take on destruction.

So, due to the fact that they are built with very thin walls, that they have very unsturdy foundations, these things do tend to move around when there is a lot of rain and a lot of wind.

MILES O'BRIEN: Nsikan Akpan is our science producer. Thank you.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Thank you, Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN: There are lots of questions about the health risks associated with this explosion, and what people need to know about the air and water in Houston.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health is here to guide us on some of the public health questions about these toxic chemicals.

First of all, give us an idea. When we hear about chemicals like organic peroxides or benzene, those kind of things either in the air or the water, that naturally raises people's concern. Help us calibrate how concerned we should be.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: Well, it depends on the concentration of these things.

You were just talking about the smoke because of the fire and the burning. The authorities in that area cordoned off the area, so that you have a circle around, so that you don't get direct exposure to that.

Exposures, if they are mild, in the sense of barely just a small concentration, it's mostly an irritant, particularly the peroxides, that in that smoke would irritate the skin or even irritate the lungs. So, for the most time, it could be either just a little bit of a nuisance irritant, or if you get a really big whiff of it, particularly people who have, for example, reversible airways disease, like asthma or different types of hypersensitivity diseases, you could get a serious problem.

For the most part, what I'm seeing and I'm hearing that is being done there about cordoning off an area to keep people far enough away that at worst it would be just an irritant, hopefully, it stays that way, and we don't see any more of it going to where people are.

MILES O'BRIEN: What about when we hear about chemicals that end up for one reason or another in the water itself? How big a concern should that be?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: It really depends on what the chemical is.

You had mentioned hydrocarbons, things like benzene and toluene. Those are a little bit more than irritants, because they can be absorbed from the gastrointestinal track and from the lungs.

And when it does, that what you can do is that you can then have toxicities systemically or to different organs. That is really with a whopping dose, so I don't want people to get concerned that if it is a really diluted in water, that there is going to be a problem.

But at its worst, it does have the potential to cause organ system dysfunction, like liver, or kidneys, or even central nervous system, and even some cardiac arrhythmias.

But, again, that's in the extreme. You don't want people to be concentrating that that is going to happen to them if they are in the water and you have a very low concentration of these.

But, ultimately, the capability of that is, it really depends on what the dose is and the concentration.

MILES O'BRIEN: Tell us about some of the other immediate health concerns people in your position have as they look at Houston.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Yes.

Well, it really is a broad spectrum. It goes from anything from the immediate, acute thing, and we have already seen it on TV multiple times. You have people, for example, who could drown, that tragic situation of a family drowning in a van.

You have people who could get electrocuted. You could have injuries. That is the first thing. Then, when you have the water which is contaminated with sewage, you can have multiple problems with that.

It could be, you could have gastrointestinal problems by inadvertently swallowing some of the contaminated water that is contaminated with sewage, and you can get a variety of bacterial or viral types of gastroenteritis.

Also, you can irritate or even get infections in the skin. You could have either obvious lesions, scrapes and cuts, for example, in your lower body. We have seen people who are in the water up to their waists. Those are the kind of things that people need to be aware of. That is one of the reasons why Secretary Price of HHS declared a public health emergency and why our own CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are working with the local and state authorities to make people aware of this broad spectrum of health hazards that you need to pay attention to.

MILES O'BRIEN: As you look toward the long-term, what are the real concerns — and we're talking years down the road — for people who have been through something like this?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, for the long-term down the road, clearly, whenever you have traumas like this with natural disasters, there always is the situation of mental issues, namely, depressions, either de novo depressions in people who have not been depressed or exacerbations of people who have a propensity to depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Also, as I think people don't fully appreciate sometimes, when you have a situation like this that we're seeing on the ground, people get dissociated from their medical care. They don't have access to their standard medicines that they take, or they need medical care that they get interrupted can have long-term effects on their health later on, as well as immediate effects on their health.

So, those are the kind of things that you don't immediately think of when you think of a hurricane or a flood, but that are important health issues.

MILES O'BRIEN: Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Thank you for your time.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Good to be with you.

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