Hurricane Harvey has poisoned Houston… literally

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High levels of the carcinogen benzene are being detected in a Houston neighborhood, which is close to a Valero Energy refinery, according to local health officials on Tuesday.

Preliminary air sampling in the Manchester district of Houston showed concentrations of up to 324 parts per billion of benzene, said Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. That is above the level at which federal safety officials recommend special breathing equipment for workers.

High levels of volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to a variety of health problems, including liver damage and cancer, were also detected by health officials.

Monitoring will continue, said Raun, noting that some readings showed far lower levels of the pollutants, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Still, “these are high numbers,” she added.

One “area of potential concern” is being linked to emissions from a Valero facility, and the Environmental Protection Agency said its air monitoring buses would continue to test pollution levels around that refinery and others in the area as they start back up, said agency spokesman David Gray in a statement.

Industrial pollution is nothing new in the low-income neighborhood of Manchester, which is surrounded by two freeways, a shipping lane, and the Valero refinery. Not surprisingly, researchers have found elevated levels of childhood leukemia in this neighborhood along with several other areas in Houston, thanks to the high levels of chemicals in the air.

According to the San Antonio-based company, Valero Energy officials told local regulators that a floating roof covering a tank at its Houston refinery sank on Aug. 27 in the heavy rains brought by Harvey, causing benzene to leak into the air. The leak lasted only until the next day, Valero stated in its filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Since Aug. 23, 31 facilities in 10 counties have reported an estimated 4.5 million pounds of excess emissions to the commission, an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund and Environment Texas shows.

Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, said that a “hurricane ride-out crew” of Valero workers had made sure that the oil that escaped from the roof was “quickly contained” and that “cleanup is well underway.” Valero was coordinating with both federal and local environmental regulators to monitor any emissions from the oil, she said.

Benzene is a toxic, flammable chemical found in crude oil and gasoline. In addition to being carcinogenic, the chemical is known to cause central nervous system damage and bone marrow damage.

Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said continued monitoring was essential; there were “a lot of unknowns” related to how long communities might have been exposed to the pollutants, and at what sustained concentrations.

The health risks are both short- and long-term. “For the short term, the risks are dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness. But this could also play into your long-term cancer risks,” said Craft. “We’re very concerned about people’s long-term health in the area.”

Two reported explosions rocked a flooded chemical plant outside of Houston last week. As a result, a “series of chemical reactions” had occurred because of the lack of refrigeration for chemicals, a plant spokeswoman told The Associated Press. Following the explosion, nine deputies drove themselves to the hospital after inhaling the non-toxic irritant.

Presently, another hurricane is threatening the state of Florida.

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