What is benzene? The chemical behind Deer Park's shelter-in-place

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The intercontinental terminals company in Deer Park is working right now to remove the remaining contents of the tanks after emissions following the fire this week led to elevated pollution in the air. In response, a shelter in place advisory was issued by the city of Deer Park for a few hours on Thursday morning. 

The fire remains extinguished, but there is one partially burned tank that is the focus of concern today. It is a pyrolysis gasoline, or pygas tank whose top was burned off exposing the pygas and allowing benzene in the pygas to emit into the atmosphere.

That benzene reached an action level, according to the city of Deer Park, which in turn asked residents to shelter in place. Some businesses closed, and five and a half miles of Highway 225 were shut down to traffic, reopening just before noon.

Fire crews had been spraying a foam layer onto the surface of the pygas to prevent emissions from escaping. Today, ITC officials explained how the benzene escaped into the atmosphere overnight.

“As the winds were shifting last night, the foam blanket is at the top of the two rings, so as you apply the foam, and the wind came, it kind of slid to the side of the tank and went off which caused it, so now we’ve reapplied it," says Alice Richardson, ITC spokesperson.

In addition to reapplying foam at the surface, crews are pumping the pygas out of the tank as quickly as they can and moving it to another tank at the facility.

By noon, there were still about 10,000 barrels worth of pygas in the tank. Benzene is one of the chemical components of pygas. Other components of pygas are toluene and xylene.

According to the CDC, benzene is a widely used chemical in the United States. Low levels of benzene can be found in tobacco smoke, near gas stations, in car exhaust, and industrial emissions.

EPA officials explained the benzene detected this morning.

“We’ve had one defection that was in the community of Deer Park, and it was not sustained. It was around 2.5, 2.6," said Adam Adams with the EPA. "Through the air monitoring, we got the hit, and then it dissipated, so it’s not continuous.”

The ITC spokeswoman again got choked up today as she promised to clean up the mess left by the massive fire.

“We’ll make this right. We will fix it, and we will make it right. And I think all of the residents of Deer Park who know us know that that will happen," she said. 

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature. It has a sweet odor and is highly flammable, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is widely used in the U.S, ranking in the top 20 chemicals for production volume.

According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals. The link between benzene and cancer has largely focused on leukemia and other cancers of blood cells.

People who breathe in high levels of benzene may develop the following signs and symptoms within minutes to several hours:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (at very high levels)

Eating foods or drinking beverages containing high levels of benzene can cause the following symptoms within minutes to several hours:

  • Vomiting
  • Irritation of the stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Convulsions
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Death (at very high levels)

You can keep an eye on your local air monitors here, to make sure they're functioning.