Original article posted on theguardian.com: Oliver Milman, 2 Sept 2017
Hurricane Harvey has resulted in Houston’s petrochemical industry leaking thousands of tons of pollutants, with communities living near plants damaged by the storm exposed to soaring levels of toxic fumes and potential water contamination.
Refineries and chemical plants have reported more than 2,700 tons, or 5.4m pounds, of extra air pollution due to direct damage from the hurricane as well as the preventive shutting down of facilities, which causes a spike in released toxins.
On Friday, ozone levels in south-west Houston were well above the national standard, triggering one of Texas’s worst recent smogs. Scientists warned that people outside cleaning up in the aftermath of Harvey were vulnerable to the poor air, particularly the elderly, children and those with asthma.
According to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, a cocktail of nearly 1m pounds of particularly harmful substances such as benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene and xylene have been emitted by more than 60 petroleum industry plants operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other businesses since the hurricane.
Houston has not met national air quality standards since the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the sudden surge in pollution has caused deep concern among public health advocates.
“It’s a really serious public health crisis from the pollution and other impacts people are facing,” said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
“Communities in close proximity to these facilities will get the worst of it, as they get the worst of it on a daily basis. There’s also the acute danger of one of these facilities exploding in neighbourhoods where storage tanks are adjacent to people’s back yards. It’s a very real threat and it’s a very precarious situation.”
The released chemicals are linked, through prolonged exposure, to an array of health problems including heightened cancer risk, gastrointestinal ailments, nausea and muscle weakness. Residents living near the sprawling industrial facilities that dominate Houston’s ship channel said they have experienced pungent smells and respiratory issues in the wake of the hurricane.