Despite the known health risks associated with benzene exposure, the agencies responsible for alerting the public to danger failed to issue a notification when a collision in the Houston Ship channel resulted in benzene levels that were 14 times higher than are considered safe. The episode occurred two weeks ago when two vessels collided and caused a spill of a gasoline blend.
Despite testing, nearby residents were not alerted to danger until several hours after the spill occurred, and residents say that it is an indication that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is falling short of its responsibilities.
According to air quality expert, Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund, the benzene exposure level was extraordinarily high at the time of the spill, but state officials are defending themselves, saying that they notified a unified command but that a social media alert was not issued until the next day. The benzene exposure measurement taken shortly after the spill indicated 2,400 to 2,600 parts per billion of benzene: anything above 180 parts per billion is seen as a health risk.
State Agency Defends Failure to Alert of Benzene Exposure
Confronted with evidence of the high benzene exposure levels, a spokesman for the state agency said that those high readings were isolated and that no other teams taking measurements saw similar readings. A reading taken at the same spot as the high measure one hour later detected no benzene. Fifteen hours later the following alert was released:
"High levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds were monitored in the area soon after a collision involving barges in the Houston Ship Channel on May 10. Monitored levels in the area since they are lower, but still elevated. While not a long-term health concern, short-term exposures to these elevated levels can cause headache, nausea, and eye irritation. People who smell the gasoline-like odors may want to avoid the area out of an abundance of caution if they experience these transient effects."
In another area, there were high readings, but none that caused concerns about benzene exposure the way that the extraordinarily high reading, which was taken in the Seabrook area, did. Benzene can cause headaches and dizziness after short term exposure, while those who face long term exposure are at risk for cancers affecting the bone marrow.