In the early hours of Saturday, October 21, a fire broke out at a recyclable plastics storage warehouse, Intercontinental Export Import, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. With outdated safety data sheets, it is unclear what is in the toxic smoke that continues to billow from the building. A list given to the public includes the possible presence of PVC, nylon, carbon black, titanium dioxide, fiberglass, formaldehyde, Teflon and styrene in the warehouse. Throughout the weekend, 31 volunteer fire departments from seven counties in West Virginia and Ohio assisted with efforts to quell the fire.
Concerns over air quality and public safety have led the governor to declare a state of emergency for all of Wood County. Community members have sought medical treatment for fire-related symptoms since Saturday. Symptoms being treated include respiratory issues, headaches, sore throat, eye irritation, coughing and shortness of breath. Though residents were told to stay in their homes to avoid the smoke, they were not given any instructions as to how they could keep the air quality in their homes safe.
Schools continue to be closed and residents as far away as 30 miles can smell the toxic smoke. This catastrophic event highlights two important needs:
1) The need for community members to know what to do in the event of a chemical disaster. Under federal law the public should have access to Emergency Response Plans. This is required under the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). This allows local emergency responders and the community to plan and be prepared for a chemical release.
2) The need for chemical inventories to be up to-date. It is unclear what is in the toxic smoke that local emergency responders and community members are breathing. Five days after the fire started, it is still a mystery. It is critical that companies keep their chemical inventories up to-date and also keep a copy offsite.
Written by Megan Synek