Fear, Unease in the Shadows of the Petrochemical Industry

Toxic chemicals released from recurring fires, explosions and industrial mishaps have become an inevitable part of life for families living in the shadows of petrochemical plants clustered in east and southeast Houston communities like Deer Park.

Life goes on while fears linger that the next catastrophe is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

Reassurances ring hollow

These communities suffer from a long history of ineffective regulation, making reassurances from politicians, government officials and industry representatives ring hollow.

In Deer Park, Channelview and surrounding areas, residents have grown accustomed to shutting the windows and turning off the AC when shelter-in-place warnings are triggered by benzene levels exceeding 1000 parts per billion (PPB). But the reality is there is no national standard for measuring the health risks associated with benzene. The 1000 PPB measure was designed for adult workers exposed during an eight-hour shift — not families and children living and breathing the air around the clock. On many occasions, levels have exceeded 1000 PPB and no warnings were sounded. According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of exposure to benzene.

Benzene is not the only worry keeping residents awake at night. Dark plumes of smoke that have settled across neighborhoods have often contained a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including dangerous chemicals like naphthalene, xylene, gas blendstock, and pygas. Little is known about the long-term health impact when these chemicals are combined, as well as how prolonged exposure to chemicals at lower levels impacts health.

“These neighborhoods are not just dealing with benzene — which is a known cancer-causing chemical,” said Waters Kraus Paul & Siegel attorney Suzi Chester, who devotes her practice to representing individuals who have been injured by toxic exposure. “It’s a complete unknown. To leave the impression that there is some metric to measure a safe level of exposure is false. There’s no way for anyone — including the TCEQ — to know.”

Why is benzene so dangerous?

An invisible, sweet-smelling hydrocarbon found in petrochemical products, it is a common ingredient in crude oil, solvents, lubricants, gasoline, plastics and many other products. Health problems caused by benzene exposure include:

  • Benzene is a known carcinogen that causes leukemia and an assortment of other cancers and serious medical conditions.
  • Benzene can affect the central nervous system and cause symptoms including dizziness, a rapid heart rate and headaches.
  • Exposure to benzene during pregnancy is known to cause birth defects and developmental complications.
  • In addition to inhalation, benzene can be absorbed through the skin or digestive tract. Once absorbed, it affects the bone marrow, causing an increase in red blood cells, leading to anemia.
  • It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.

Bad Neighbors

Deer Park residents are still discovering the extent of contamination that occurred when an Intercontinental Terminals Company exploded in 2019 in what has been described as the worst toxic contamination event in the United States in generations. The fire started when a tank containing naphtha failed and began leaking the highly flammable liquid. One tank after another caught fire. Ten tanks — each containing millions of gallons of chemicals — collapsed, sending thick smoke into the air and causing toxic liquids to drain into the Houston Ship Channel. The fire burned for three days, and dangerous levels of benzene in the air were recorded for weeks after the blaze.

Industry, public officials must do better

Toxic pollution is carried by the wind. It does not respect fence lines and neighborhood boundaries. While everyone is at risk in some way, this contamination impacts working class neighborhoods clustered around Houston’s petrochemical industry more than other populations.

Toxic contamination events are painful reminders that while investigations can and do uncover violations, not enough has been done to hold anyone accountable. The regulatory shortcomings underscore the important watchdog role that the civil justice system can play in forcing corporations to improve safety for their workers and for surrounding communities.

Individual lawsuits provide an opportunity to consider how a company’s negligence and indifference to safety can play a role in these events. In addition to providing monetary compensation for actual damages, jurors have the ability to assess additional costs as punishment for a company’s reckless or negligent safety practices.

How We Help Victims of Benzene Exposure

Seek justice with the help of our experienced attorneys. Our Texas-based benzene law firm has battled corporate giants on behalf of individuals like you for 20 years, aggressively fighting to hold them responsible for dangerous chemicals and the personal injuries and cancers they cause. If you have suffered a catastrophic injury caused by dangerous products, we can help.

What are my chances?

That’s the first question everyone asks. The truth is it’s impossible to know. But we can tell you this. Waters Kraus Paul & Siegel has what it takes to fight against big corporate interests and win. That’s why we’ve taken more mesothelioma trials to verdict than any other firm. And that’s why we’ve recovered more than $1.3 billion for clients like you. Do you think you have a case? Contact us now to speak with an attorney.

Call 800.226.9880