Health concerns surround Waxahachie chemical fire

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on October 3, 2011 at 4:42 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 3 at 6:21 PM

Magnablend fire location

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Is the air safe in Ellis County in the wake of Monday's massive Magnablend chemical plant fire?

The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring air quality all around the Magnablend site. Late Monday afternoon, EPA spokesman Nicholas Brescia said monitoring at locations surrounding the facility indicated there was no "significant public health threat."

Brescia said an aircraft equipped with chemical sensors made four passes over the area. The equipment detected "extremely low levels" of two chemicals -- one flammable, the other a hydrocarbon compound -- but he said the amount did not reach a "public action level."

The concern surrounds potentially toxic smoke from thousands of gallons of chemicals that burned.

Experts say tiny carbon particles from petroleum-based oils caused the huge black plume of smoke rising from the plant between Interstate 35E and Highway 287 in Waxahachie.

Those particles can be dangerous when inhaled.

"They can cause problems — not only because they're particles in the lungs, but they may have organic compounds associated with them," said University of Texas at Arlington professor of environmental science Dr. Andrew Hunt. "Some of these organic compounds are potential carcinigens."

No one is sure yet what the fluid is that was observed oozing from the warehouse in a liquid pool of flames. But the Magnablend plant was filled with chemicals for making agricultural products, including fertilizer and animal feed.

Those chemicals have dangerous resumes. Methanol is toxic and highly flammable; anhydrous ammonia is both toxic and flammable.

But the chemical that caused high concern for firefighters is naphthalene.

"We had naphtha in there, which was a big concern... very flammable," said Waxahachie Fire Department Chief David Hudgins. "I would classify that as the same nature as gasoline."

Putting it all together, it is a toxic and dangerous mix for anyone nearby. Even in small amounts, the health issues could mount, with symptoms including:

  • burning eyes and throats
  • difficulty breathing
  • nausea
  • skin irritation

We checked with Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie; no one, so far, has been treated for chemical smoke-related problems.

People with chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, emphysema, and COPD would be most at-risk of having a serious reaction. Those people are being urged to either stay inside or move upwind of the plant fire until the smoke clears.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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