Health Risks Stemming from the Deer Park Plant Fire

by Terry Bryant

Billowing dark clouds of smoke were visible for miles nearly 24 hours after the tank fire started. It began at 11 a.m. on Sunday as two tanks caught fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) Deer Park plant on Independence Parkway just north of Highway 225.

Soon the fire spread to six additional tanks. La Porte Independent School District and Deer Park ISD canceled their Monday classes. A mandatory shelter-in-place for the entire city of Deer Park was lifted. The good news is that the fire didn’t become an explosion and, so far at least, there have been no reports of injuries. But that doesn’t mean people in the area shouldn’t be concerned.

Fires Prompt Health Concerns

The chemicals involved in the fire include gasoline components Naphtha and Xylene, the former of which produces poisonous gases when it’s exposed to fire. It can also irritate the nose and throat when breathed. One of the other tanks that caught fire contained Toluene, a chemical used to make nail polish remover, glues, and paint thinner.

These three chemicals can be lethal if swallowed or inhaled, according to ABC 13. Harris County Public Health released a statement warning that symptoms of exposure to these chemicals include coughing, difficulty breathing, burning, irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and redness to the eyes, nose, and throat. Public Health expressed concern for workers and vulnerable groups like the elderly and children, particularly those with respiratory issues.

ITC Seems Less Concerned

Companies that are responsible for these types of incidents usually issue optimistic statements, so it’s not surprising that ITC has said the risk of explosion is low and that only “low levels of particulate matter have been detected.” ITC also said that air readings from the area “are currently well below hazardous levels.” Not everyone shares their nothing-to-see-here perspective.

Around 30 employees were on site when the fire occurred. Though ITC says that there were no injuries, it’s unclear whether there will be any lingering effects from chemical exposure. Injuries and illness from chemical exposure can take extended periods of time to manifest.

The Causes are Unknown

There’s been no report indicating what caused the fire. In many of these instances, there are several contributing factors. Sometimes companies fail to monitor, inspect, or maintain important equipment. Until ITC, federal/state/local agencies/officials, and local media investigate the circumstances, there’s no way of knowing exactly how it happened, but identifying the underlying causes is important to make sure this doesn’t happen again.