In addition to the catastrophic flooding in the greater Houston, Texas, area caused by Hurricane Harvey, residents are threatened with toxic fumes from damaged refineries polluting the air.
According to HuffPost, Harris County is home to approximately 4.5 million people, and more than 40 percent of the United States’ petrochemical capacity. However, the heavy rainfall and flood waters have forced at least 10 refineries on the Texas coast to shut down, which increases their emissions beyond what’s generally allowed.
“Upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems,” according to a 2012 study by the Environmental Integrity Project.
As working class and minority communities are typically placed near these refineries and chemical plants, these populations face the most danger.
Local resident Stephanie Thomas reportedly told the Houston Press that “something powerful” hit her nose. She described the odor as “burnt rubber with a hint of something metallic thrown in.”
Nonprofit worker Bryan Parras — who frequents Manchester, which is situated near several chemical plants — also told the Houston Press that he believes he’s been affected by the pollution.
“It was weird because I was getting a heartache and a scratchy throat, like the one I get when I take people on toxic tours of Manchester, but I was sitting at home,” Parras reportedly said. “The stuff was getting sucked into my house through the window air conditioning units.”
Air Alliance Houston has estimated that the region’s petrochemical plants will release over 1 million pounds of pollution due to Hurricane Harvey.
A chemical leak caused officials in the surrounding cities of La Porte and Shoreacres to issue a “shelter in place” order on Monday, instructing residents to close windows and doors, as well as shut off air conditioning systems and ventilation.
The chemical was identified as anhydrous hydrogen chloride, which is described by HuffPost as a colorless gas that turns into a white mist of hydrochloric acid when exposed to moisture in the air. Breathing the fumes from this chemical could be fatal, and contact with eyes or skin could cause severe burns.
“Air pollution is one of the unseen dangers of the storm,” said Dr. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “Poor air quality puts the most vulnerable among us, like children and seniors, at risk for asthma, heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.”
The damage of Hurricane Harvey has caused a domino effect of health hazards threatening countless lives with each day that residents are trapped in these dangerous conditions.
Banner/Thumbnail Photo Credit: Reuters, Nick Oxford