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Deer Park, Texas, residents face health problems following a massive fire at the petrochemical plant



"We were held hostage in our own homes," said longtime Dener Park resident Steve Michels. "It was just awful."

Concerns over the health risks faced by Deer Park residents were exacerbated over the weekend. On Friday, a barrier wall collapsed at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) facility, unleashing another fire and sending chemical waste into the waterways that led to the Houston Ship Channel. The Coast Guard has closed a section of this busy shipping canal, with no schedule for reopening.

On Saturday, ITC officials and local authorities assured the residents of Deer Park that the city is safe. "Our community-monitored programs have not raised immediate health concerns," said Alice Richardson, ITC's Public Information Officer.

Some residents like Brian Williams do not trust these assurances. He lives 1

0 miles from the ITC facility, which burned for the first time a week ago. "I have a garden in my backyard, I will take it in now," he says. "I will not eat anything anymore."

Tests conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over the weekend found nine specific chemicals exceeding "their concentration limit for health," in water from a trench of the ITC plant, which flows into the canal. However, according to TCEQ, there is no danger to public drinking water.

"It's not good for you, we know it's not"

Last Tuesday, smoke blew over the roof of Williams House. On Wednesday he got sick and vomited on Friday. He says he is confident that the symptoms have "nothing to do with pollen in the air".

The Texas Environmental Quality Commission tested the region's air quality over the weekend and found low levels of benzene, one of the potentially carcinogenic chemicals they found in ditch water. According to TCEQ, the levels found are not high enough to cause health concerns.

However, Williams's skepticism persists. "They say we can not smoke cigarettes, that's bad for your lungs, it's bad for your health," he says. "So if you put heat on any kind of chemicals, that's not good for you, we know that's not the case."

Acute benzene exposure can cause headache, dizziness, or dysregulation, says the World Health Organization. Chronic exposure can lead to cancer.

Michels, who has lived in the area for over 20 years, felt his eyes burn and had shortness of breath this week. He sought help in a local clinic. He wanted his blood tested for benzene, but his insurance would not cover it. He says he was told that it costs about $ 350 out of his pocket.

"Many of us can not afford to go to the doctor," Williams explains. "So we have to live with it."

"It's always hard to say"

Complaints of itchy skin, stuffy and bloody nostrils, and tightness in the chest have been Dr. Umair Shah's attention in the days since the blaze began.

Shah says the Harris County Community Building has become "a kind of health fair". Shah, managing director of Harris County Public Health, has set up a mobile health clinic there.

"People come to us and they say," This has something to do with the exposure. "We will certainly keep that in mind, but the doctors are doing that assessment," he explains. "The question of whether these symptoms are related to the fire is always difficult to say."

"Conditions are changing daily, people are very stressed and (stress) can make their symptoms worse," says Elena Craft, senior director of the Climate and Health Program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Their charitable work has worked side by side with federal and local authorities collecting air and water samples.

Their biggest concern – the material in the tanks, which does not yet have to be disposed of. ITC continues to pump chemical waste from charred tanks and contaminated waterways. The company announced on Sunday that significantly less remains in the tanks and in the contaminated drainage ditches.

In the meantime, as the smoke subsides, concerns remain for those who call this part of Texas home.

"This type of incident should never have happened," complained Craft Jason Morris.


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