workers safety and health 

Downriver Residents Complain of Chemical Exposures 
& Poor Evacuation Procedures   

   “I'm just talking as a human being – one that lives real close to your plant. I still have burning eyes, burning nasal passages. I still have diarrhea. I'm still lethargic. Period. My concern is that there are people in the neighborhood that do not have insurance,” stated a downriver community resident exposed to chemicals from the July 14 Atofina explosion.

      Over 125 downriver residents, many with symptoms similar to those of methyl mercaptan exposure, attended a risk communications program five days after the explosion at Atofina Chemical Company in Riverview. The event, held at St. Elizabeth Church in Wyandotte, was co-sponsored by SEMCOSH and the Sierra Club to share information about the incident and the health effects of exposure to the toxic chemical that spewed across several downriver communities, southwest Ontario and the Detroit River. The performance of governmental agencies responsible for emergency evacuation was reviewed.

      A majority of those attending the forum had symptoms from the exposure. Downriver residents complained of nausea, burning in the nose and throat, diarrhea, vomiting, hair falling out, thyroid problems, increased asthma, heaviness in the chest, and increased blood pressure.          

      Residents were concerned about evacuation procedures. Asked one, "Why was Reno St. not evacuated? The reason why I'm asking is that I woke up Saturday morning with a swollen throat. I still have it as of today. Someone needs to reevaluate this (evacuation) process. How can they determine which way the wind was blowing at 4am in the morning?"

      Local fire officials, responsible under Federal law for determining evacuation needs and procedures were not in attendance. SEMCOSH and Sierra Club representatives were joined by  Steven Tackett, Wayne County Environmental Health Department, Michelle Jaster, US Environmental Protection Agency, Lieutenant Hemp from the US Coast Guard, and a representative of  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

      The forum became heated at times. Residents of Riverview, Grosse Isle and Wyandotte raised questions about the evacuation strategy and EPA air monitoring.

      Several individuals reporting what they fear are chemical exposure symptoms asked why they had not been evacuated. Others wondered why they received phone calls instead of having local police officers going door-to-door to get neighbors out.

      The unplanned release of Methyl Mercaptan began around 3:55 am but EPA officials were not notified until four to five hours later with EPA monitoring beginning ten hours after the incident, around 1 pm. The hours immediately following a release are the most critical for air monitoring because that is when the highest exposures occur. In this case that exposure occurred before EPA was informed and the delay in collecting data increases the uncertainty of health officials regarding exposures.

      Residents reported calling Atofina’s “health hotline number” and not getting their questions answered. Instead the company nurse asked them questions for thirty minutes. The “health” hotline, feel residents, is a smokescreen for the chemical company’s legal concerns.

      Atofina Plant Manager Joe Ali was repeatedly asked questions by the audience most of whom were not satisfied with his answers. He did pledge to provide answers through the ‘hotline’.

      The chemical industry is capital intensive, few workers tend highly automized processing plants, moving huge volumes of often untested chemicals through mixing and reacting procedures. In the chemical industry any accident has the potential of being catastrophic like the incident in Riverview. Atofina generally seems to have recognized this, the company’s public OSHA record is quite clean and it has adopted an intensive union-developed, safety training procedure.

      At the end of the evening Dr. Jeff Moran, from the Center for Toxicology and the Environment, siezed the microphone at the front of the room and began answering questions about health concerns. He dismissed any notion that Methyl Mercaptan had anything to do with symptoms presented by anyone in the room. When someone asked “who pays you?” Moran, who claimed to be a “consulting toxicologist” did not deny that he is being paid by Atofina.

      On August 15 SEMCOSH and the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine co-hosted an educational forum for nurses and doctors in the downriver area. Michael Harbut, MD a practicing occupational and environmental specialist at COEM and a professor at Wayne State University discussed in depth how medical professionals can identify the different diseases – often with quite similar symptoms – of patients who have inhaled chemical toxins. Harbut explained the tests to perform as well as the uncertainty of resulting from chemical releases in an industrial area.

      An explosion like the one in Riverview releases chemicals into an environment full of other chemicals. This causes the formation of different chemicals from exposure to sunlight (chlorine turns into phosgene) and interactions between the chemicals in the air. Ongoing air monitoring by government agencies is not comprehensive and the emergency air monitoring didn’t begin until ten hours after the incident.

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