Air Pollution by Benzene: What You Need to Know

Hurricane Harvey was bad enough while it was pummelling the Gulf Coast, but now there are growing reports of a significant amount of pollution being released into the environment from damages sustained during the storm. The San Jacinto River toxic pits were reopened from heavy floodwaters ripping through, and now it seems that refineries and petrochemical plants were also affected. Hazardous waste is a serious health risk to the public, and companies are responsible for handling these dangerous chemicals in the proper manner.

Air pollution is being closely monitored in Manchester and other eastside Houston neighborhoods surrounded by heavy industrial manufacturing sites, but these are not likely to be the only sites affected. Plumes of benzene and other chemicals were detected spewing from a Valero Energy factory, and authorities were only alerted because a concerned member of the public called 311. Residents in the area noticed an unusual odor and did the right thing by asking for help.

Valero’s initial statement claimed around 6.7 pounds of benzene and around 3,350 pounds of other organic volatile chemicals leaked from a holding tank due to heavy rainfall. Several news outlets took these numbers at face-value and ran the story without carefully following up.

Authorities have now completed the investigation using the EPA emissions protocol for toxic spills at refineries, Section 12.3. Engineers calculated the actual leaks of these hazardous materials to be much greater than the corporation initially disclosed, the most dangerous of which is benzene. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s official estimates are as follows:

  •      2-Methylhexane : 5,749 pounds
  •      2-methylpentane : 11,360 pounds
  •      3-methylhexane : 6,395 pounds
  •      3-methylpentane : 6,588 pounds
  •     Benzene : 1,881 pounds
  •      Butane, N- : 9,013 pounds
  •      Cyclohexane : 5,484 pounds
  •      Ethane : 55 pounds
  •     Heptane, – n : 13,371 pounds
  •      Isobutane : 2,828 pounds
  •      Isopentane : 18,027 pounds
  •      Methylcyclohexane : 12,432 pounds
  •      Methylcyclopentane : 5,268 pounds
  •      Pentane : 20,034 pounds
  •      Propane : 1,509 pounds
  •     Toluene : 6,377 pounds
  •      Unspeciated Volatile Organic Compounds: 92,266 pounds

As most people are generally aware, corporations are not reliable sources of information when it involves their own mistakes, and often times they will bury results to shield themselves from liability. The Houston area is known for its industrial manufacturing, and several companies in the area deal with petroleum, chemical, and plastic processes. The Valero Energy case is only one example of over two-dozen companies that were severely affected by Hurricane Harvey. Residents in eastern Houston and other cities along the Gulf Coast were exposed to dangerous chemicals, and no one is taking responsibility yet.

What is benzene?

Benzene is actually a byproduct of the petroleum manufacturing process that is dangerous. It is a highly flammable product that is also explosive and toxic. The byproduct was discovered first in 1825 by Michael Faraday, and it was used as both pest control and a way to decaffeinate coffee. Its modern uses are far different and may be included as a solvent in industrial pants, varnishes, and laquer thinners; gasoline; and organic chemistry reactions.

As a clear, aromatic chemical, benzene can be difficult to detect without proper equipment. It has a faint odor that is both sweet and similar to gasoline, and it is found in crude oils during the refinement process. Benzene will float on water, but it is heavier than air. Once released into the atmosphere, eventually it will form a mist and fall back to the surface. Natural sources of benzene also include volcanoes and forest fires and is a natural byproduct of cigarette smoke.

This chemical is a powerful known carcinogen and is one of the top 20 most widely used chemicals in the U.S. according to American Cancer Society. Long-term exposure is strongly correlated with blood cancers, including acute myelogenous leukemia, as well as chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Blood poisoning and bone marrow dysplasia are also common after heavy amounts of benzene exposure.

Short-term exposure to benzene can leave individuals feeling sick, nauseous, and experiencing awful headaches. The chemical damages the immune system by weakening white blood cells, lowering antibody levels, and slowing red blood cell production. Outdoor air contains low levels of benzene from motor vehicle exhaust, gas stations, tobacco smoke, and heavy industries.

Extreme Levels of Chemical Exposure

If you or a loved one live on the east side of Houston, near Manchester neighborhood or a heavy industrial site, and are suffering side effects of toxic fumes, you should consider getting immediate medical attention.

Workplace exposures to hazardous chemicals and toxic fumes are an unfortunate possibility for many employees across the Houston area. Chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and pipeline workers are exceptionally vulnerable to improper safety standards in this type of highly dangerous work environment. It is the responsibility of company managers and supervisors to ensure the safety of all their workers and to prevent accidental exposures to dangerous chemicals. Despite their efforts to prevent these things from happening, accidents do occur.

What are your options?

If you have been injured or severely exposed to unsafe chemicals in your workplace, you do not have to face the aftereffects alone. Lost wages, expensive medical bills, or the loss of companionship are unnecessary challenges when you should be focused on resting and recovering.

Employers that pressure employees to “catch up” after temporary closures and expect long hours are most likely to cut corners on safety. The added pressure from the company’s leadership to generate revenue could entice management to take shortcuts and skip accident-prevention regulations. The hurricane was out of your control, and you do not have to accept dangerous working conditions.

The attorneys at Williams Kherkher recognize these types of reprehensible actions by large corporations and refuse to allow this pervasion of justice to go unchallenged. As members of the Houston community, we have friends and family all along the Gulf Coast. We understand the challenges that employees in the energy sector face on a daily basis, and we will fight on your behalf. If you have any questions or concerns, you should not hesitate to contact us immediately. You can chat with us live on our website or send us an email anytime. Call today [phone number] to set up your free appointment.

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