Researchers: Chemicals released during ITC fire did not harm humans

On Nov. 4, Texas A&M University researchers discussed the environmental effects and human health risks associated with the chemicals released during the ITC fires in March.
On Nov. 4, Texas A&M University researchers discussed the environmental effects and human health risks associated with the chemicals released during the ITC fires in March.

On Nov. 4, Texas A&M University researchers discussed the environmental effects and human health risks associated with the chemicals released during the ITC fires in March.

Firefighters used chemically laced foam to extinguish blazes at Intercontinental Terminals Company in March, but at a public meeting Nov. 4, researchers said the foam did not release enough chemicals into the environment to harm humans.

However, the researchers said there are several data gaps that would give them more insight as to the effects of the chemicals release.

Researchers from the Texas A&M University Superfund Research Center and Galveston Bay Foundation Director Bob Stokes spoke at a meeting in Seabrook to break down the effects of the ITC fire on the environment. The fire began March 17 in Deer Park when chemical tanks caught on fire—a fire that took days to extinguish.

After the fire, the foundation found it difficult to learn and understand what the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was doing to sample the air and water for perfluorooctanoic acids, or PFAs—potentially harmful chemicals commonly used in firefighting foam. As such, researchers from the foundation got in a boat, entered the Houston Ship Channel and began taking their own samples, Stokes said.

Eventually, the foundation partnered with the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center to analyze the samples. Researchers found elevated levels of PFAs in the channel immediately after the fire, Professor Weihsueh Chiu said.


“... These chemicals are very resistant to degradation in the environment. They remain in the environment for a very long time,” Chiu said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that certain PFAs may cause serious health conditions, such as cancer, decreased birth weight and damage to immune systems. However, there is very little data on most of the thousands of PFAs, Chiu said.

The foundation and the research center sampled water up- and downstream of the ship channel through August to determine how long the PFAs stuck around. By June and July, PFA levels had declined significantly, meaning that they washed out into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Stokes said.

The elevated PFA levels found immediately after the fire were above several agencies’ safe limits for drinking water. However, no one is drinking water from the ship channel, so researchers compared the PFA levels to recreational use limits. According to those limits, even the highest sampled levels of PFAs did not pose a concern to humans who may have swam in the channel and accidentally ingested water, Chiu said.

Regardless, Stokes said, the firefighting industry is trying to move away from using foam with PFAs.

“Hopefully, next time around, the product that is used is a safer product—perhaps because we documented PFAs in this instance,” he said.

The researchers did not examine how the PFAs might have affected fish and shellfish or the well water that many residents use for drinking.
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By Jake Magee

Jake Magee has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper.

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