Fires and Chemicals: A Toxic and Deadly Mix

BY ON April 15, 2019

HOUSTON, TEXAS, USA – MARCH 18, 2019: Black smoke cloud over the Deer park school coming from burning tanks at petrochemical plant ITC in Deer Park


I recently watched the MSNBC hour with Chris Hayes interviewing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One of my top takeaways was the importance of recognizing the interrelationships between the different challenges that are facing the country.

There is a definitive overlap between health issues, environmental justice, jobs, the need to get off of fossil fuels, and our lifestyle choices.

It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the materials that go into giving us the “good life” create major problems as well.

Wildfires and Chemicals

Case in point: In the recent wildfires in California, one of the major repercussions has been the fallout from poisonous chemicals released by fire damage. People were not allowed to return to their homes until authorities had determined that the level of contamination at locations were at a “safe” amount.

These noxious chemicals and heavy metals can come from a cabinet filled with household cleaning agents, lead paint, burned asbestos, plastics, metals, and even melted refrigerators. Air, water, and ground contamination are the result. This has consequences for the health of people long-term. Remember the elevated rate of illnesses that have been experienced by the 9/11 first responders?

An increased number of wildfires mean a greater release into the atmosphere of harmful chemicals including hydrogen cyanide, benzene, and dioxins. Most at risk are children, older people, and those with heart and respiratory illnesses.

Industrial Fires and Chemicals

While California is fighting land fires, the citizens of Houston are dealing with the fallout from the concentration of facilities that have been built to store the by-products from the oil-refinery industry. The Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, a Houston-area petrochemicals terminal, was the site of a major petrochemical crisisin mid-March. Schools were closed, and parents were palpably concerned about how their children’s health could suffer, both immediately and in the future.

Houston, known as the “energy capital” of the United States, also qualifies as one of the most racially segregated cities the America – a result of patterns that have pushed communities of color to less desirable areas. Deer Park is a community that is 62.5 percent white, and while their Air Quality Index is not great at 128, (51 – 100 is moderate); they are still doing better than their neighbors located on the East Side of Houston.

There, frontline communities of color are segregated into what has been termed “sacrifice zones.” The residents don’t have the economic resources to afford flood insurance, or the political clout to demand dams or dikes to hold back water during hurricane flooding. Oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and shipping lanes are a part of daily life. Residents are subject to an unequal burden from the exposure to cancerous fumes. In Harrisburg/Manchester, cancer riskswere reported (2016) to be 22 percent higher than the rest of the urban Houston area.

It has also been shown that the Houston Ship Channel is a major source of air pollution to adjacent locales. Children living with 2 miles of the channel have a 56 percent higher risk of getting leukemia than their counterparts living more that 10 miles from the channel.

Political will is going to be key to making the necessary changes. Why are some elected officials ignoring the ramifications of taking action on climate change, and choosing to kick the can down the road? The clock is ticking down and the future of everybody’s children is at stake.


TOPICS: African-American Community, Air Pollution, California, Children's Health, Climate Change, Heat and Extreme Weather, Latino Community, Social Justice, Texas, Toxics