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What to do when you find yourself in an air quality emergency

What to do when you find yourself in an air quality emergency

We’ve all been on the other side of the highway when an accident snarls traffic for miles behind it, and our lanes of traffic slow down but continue to move.  Whew, glad I wasn’t on that side, we think…but sadly sometimes we may find ourselves stuck in an air quality emergency that requires calm, decisive action to quickly get to safe air.  

On Wednesday, November 8, 2023, a fire at a small chemical plant north of Houston sent plumes of black smoke into the air.   According to the Reuters report on November 9, Sound Resource Solutions blends, packages and distributes oilfield and other industrial chemicals including sulfuric acid, acetone and petrochemicals like xylene and toluene, according to the company's website.  These are chemicals that are acutely toxic with the potential to cause serious eye, skin and organ damage, as well as carcinogenic. 

A news article from a Houston news station released the list of chemicals that had been stored on the site during the last 2 years, which confirmed they are quite toxic.  

However, despite the smoke and shelter-in-place orders (which have been lifted), it seems that officials are downplaying the possible effects.

  • According to a Houston news channel video the day after the fire was extinguished (Nov. 9), the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality was monitoring the air and “did not detect any levels of concern from the samples”.  

  • In the same video, an official from the University of Houston said that rain would wash any chemicals out of the air, dilute them out and they eventually go into the ocean.  

Here are the problems we see with these assessments: black smoke was seen moving north toward Livingston, Texas.  Such smoke carries a lot of particulates, which will deposit on businesses and residents’ homes, vehicles and farms (food sources), as well as drinking water facilities.  Also, by our estimates, Shepherd, Texas is 50-60 miles from Trinity Bay, which is open to the Gulf of Mexico.  In order to get to the ocean (Gulf of Mexico), the particulates and chemicals will pass through many drinking water sources!  Once again, it’s probable that authorities are not releasing timely information about hazardous levels of chemicals in the air (and no water reports were discussed).

If you find yourself in an emergency area like Shepherd, Texas, it’s best to do one of two things: stay inside and implement air quality containment measures, or drive out of the area as soon as possible.  Here are our recommendations:

If you choose to stay inside:

  • Close all windows and turn off air conditioning and heating systems if possible.

  • Although most HVAC systems don’t have fresh air intakes, you should close these intakes if they do.  

  • Don’t use exhaust fans like the kitchen or bathroom exhaust fans.  Don’t use clothes dryers, either!  Each of these pull air out of the house, which consequently draws air into the home through cracks in windows and other penetrations.

  • If you have air purifiers, run them continuously.  If you have only one purifier, run it in one small room where you can shelter for most of your time.  If you don’t have an air purifier, here's how to make one using a box fan and a MERV-rated filter.

  • Don’t cook if possible; try eating canned food or food that doesn’t require cooking or heating.  The reason is that cooking and heating food releases even more VOCs into the air, and you shouldn’t vent these with the exhaust fan.

  • Monitor AirNow.gov for local air quality updates, because the air quality outside your home will eventually be the air quality in your home.  If air quality outside deteriorates, you may want to gather supplies and necessities and evacuate via car.

  • Use bottled (preferable) or home-filtered water until you are sure that tap water has not been contaminated (which may be weeks or months).

If you evacuate:

  • Make sure that the HVAC in your home is turned off and all windows/doors are closed before you leave.  You can leave air purifiers running in your home, however.

  • Make sure you use the best masks you have until you get out of the area.  Exchange your mask for a new one if you start to have trouble breathing. 

  • Spend as little time outside as possible. 

  • When driving, keep your air conditioner set to “recirculation” mode until you get out of the danger area.

  • Bring/buy bottled water. 

  • Monitor AirNow.gov for local air quality updates and check updates by local news authorities. 

  • Upon returning home, clean carefully and thoroughly!  We have recommendations in our article here.

Note that smoke particles, which can contain toxic chemicals, will deposit on the ground, making it easy for people and pets to bring them into the house, so you may want to be vigilant about removing shoes and cleaning pets’ paws when you can.

Many people live or drive within range of being affected by toxic spills, fires and environmental disasters, so your best bet is being prepared (and have a healthy skepticism of all-clear reports until you can research the situation).

Photo by irfan hakim on Unsplash

Phytoremediation Cleans Up Soil Naturally

Phytoremediation Cleans Up Soil Naturally

It’s happened to the most careful and graceful of us: a cup of coffee or plate of spaghetti sauce lands on the carpet, upside-down, of course. Out come the carpet cleaners, vacuum cleaner, or if you’re really prepared, the carpet-cleaning machine, and we do our best to treat the area and cordon it off for “drying”.  If the offending stain doesn’t appear again, case closed.

But what if you or someone else spills a toxic chemical on a large area of your lawn?  How do you remove that? There are no “lawn cleaners”...or maybe there are. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the U.S. agency concerned with not only monitoring, but cleaning up those big spills or more unfortunately “dumps” in the U.S.  It mandates how the sites are cleaned up and should hold individuals or corporations liable for the damage.  Unfortunately, as long as there is industry, there will be accidental, and often intentional, spill on land and water.  However, sometimes, the “cleanup” may not look like cleanup at all, if phytoremediation is used.  A toxic waste cleanup site may look like any other green field.

Phytoremediation refers to the different ways plants can be used to “clean up” contaminated soil.  Around  400  species  of  plants are called “hyperaccumulators” because they absorb unusually large amounts of metals in comparison to other plants.   These  plants  have  been found to accumulate metals at a rate 50 - 100 times higher than normal plants.  (Phytoremediation of soil metals)  They do this in a number of ways; the following terms are taken from the EPA’s Phytoremediation Resource Guide:

  • Phytoextraction: some plants take up metal contaminants in the soil by plant roots and move them into the aboveground portions (stems, leaves, fruit). 

  • Rhizofiltration: some plants adsorb contaminants from ground water onto their roots, or in the case of aquatic species, the plants live in contaminated water (like wastewater). Duckweed is a species that has been shown to remove many types of heavy metals from water. (Duckweed: A Model for Phytoremediation Technology)

  • Phytostabilization: some plants are used to immobilize contaminants in the soil and ground water through absorption and accumulation by roots, adsorption onto roots, or precipitation within the root zone. This process reduces the mobility of the contaminant and prevents migration to the ground water or air, and it reduces bioavailability for entry into the food chain.

  • Phytodegradation: some plants take up contaminants and break them down through metabolic processes within the plant, or through the effect of compounds (such as enzymes) produced by the plants. Pollutants are degraded, incorporated into the plant tissues, and used as nutrients.

  • Rhizodegradation:  the breakdown of contaminants in the soil through microbial activity that is enhanced by the presence of the rhizosphere and is a much slower process than phytodegradation. Microorganisms (yeast, fungi, or bacteria) consume and digest organic substances for nutrition and energy.  This is becoming a very popular topic and technology as scientists learn how to modify and genetically engineer microbes for particular purposes.   

  • Phytovolatilization:  some plants are able to take up and transpire (breathe out) contaminants, releasing the contaminant or a modified form of the contaminant to the atmosphere.  It is known that trees with deep roots transpire radon from the ground and groundwater.  

So, once the area is planted with hyperaccumulating plants, what happens next?  Unless the contaminant is phytodegraded, meaning, the plant breaks it down, the plants will still contain the contaminants, so they must be harvested and disposed of properly.  If testing reveals that they indeed have higher-than-acceptable levels of the contaminants (actually, this is a good outcome), they are either composted or dried and incinerated, and the waste remaining is securely buried.  Then the process is repeated until the soil is cleaned to an acceptable level.  The difference between phytoremediation and traditional soil removal is huge:  typically the amount of material to be incinerated from phytoremediation is only 10% of that required by traditional soil removal.   Here is a video of an EPA phytoremediation project in Crozet, VA where arsenic is removed from the site of an old apple orchard by planting and harvesting ferns that were bioengineered for the purpose of extracting arsenic.

What does this mean for the average homeowner?  Unfortunately, many private lands are poisoned with any number of contaminants: lead paint from old buildings, pesticides from farms and aerial contaminants that settle from spraying for insects or crops are all sources of contaminants.   You might not even be aware of old fuel tanks or lines that were buried decades ago, before you purchased the land, and have begun to leak, or maybe a new industry is releasing chemicals upstream of your land.  With any knowledge or suspicion of contamination, consider if you or your family will be exposed to the soil, and decide whether to get the soil tested.  If children or animals are regularly in contact with the soil, or you want to grow edible plants and vegetables on the land, testing is a good idea, so you know what chemicals you’re dealing with and which plants may be able to help you!  Here is a great article on how to gather soil samples and available testing centers. 

If you do find contamination on your land, here are some actual plants that could help clean up the soil: 

  • Grasses: Indian Grass has the ability to detoxify common agrochemical residues such as pesticides and herbicides. Indian Grass is one of nine members of grasses that assist in phytoremediation plants. When planted on farmland, the reduction of pesticides and herbicides is significant. This list also includes Buffalo grass and Western wheatgrass, both capable of absorbing hydrocarbons from the land. (Phytoremediation Plants Used to Clean Contaminated Soil)

  • Sunflower plants were demonstrated to have removed 95 percent of uranium from a contaminated area in a 24-hour period. This highly successful crop is a powerful tool for the environment because of its ability to remove radioactive metals from superficial groundwater, so they were used in cleanup after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which left nearby soil and water heavy with the radioactive elements cesium and strontium. The process works because the isotopes “mimic” nutrients that the sunflower would naturally absorb – cesium mimics potassium, which plants need for photosynthesis, and strontium passes for calcium, which provides structural support. Unfortunately, sunflowers did not work so well for Fukushima, Japan, because the isotopes released were very different from Chernobyl. (Why Scientists Plant Sunflowers After Nuclear Disasters).  Sunflowers are also good at absorbing metals such as lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, copper and manganese. Indian mustard removes lead, selenium, zinc, mercury and copper.  Hydrangeas draw out aluminum from the soil.  (Superplants clean up toxins from contaminated soil)

  • Trees can do their part:  Willows and poplars have been shown to be strong phytoremediators, not to mention being beautiful.  Carbon tetrachloride, a well-known carcinogen, is easily absorbed by poplar tree roots. They can also degrade petroleum hydrocarbons like benzene or paint thinners that have accidentally spilled onto the soil. (Phytoremediation Plants Used to Clean Contaminated Soil)

  • Vegetables:  Of course, if you know that there’s soil contamination and you grow vegetables to remove it, you must take care not to let anyone or any animals eat the vegetables or plants.  Certain vegetables only take contaminants into their root systems, but others draw them up into the leafy greens of the plants.  Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, collards, mustards and also corn are considered hyperaccumulators.  (Superplants clean up toxins from contaminated soil)

  • Mushrooms: Like phytoremediation, mycoremediation is the use of fungus or microbes to clean the soil.  It’s hard to believe that edible mushrooms are in the same class as toxic mold, but they are both fungus, and can be used to absorb and/or break down pollutants.  As mycelium spreads, it secretes enzymes which can break down pollution.  For example, oyster mushrooms have been used to remove E. Coli from Chicago River water, harmful Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and TNT from water sources contaminated by wildfire ash, and diesel-contaminated fields from 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of PAHs to less than 200 ppm in eight weeks.  Turkey Tail, Shiitake and White-Rot Fungus are three other useful mycoremediators. (Mycoremediation: 8 Ways Mushrooms Can Mitigate Pollution)

The downside of hyperaccumulating plants is when they are grown and consumed without testing/regulation of the contaminants in them.  Unfortunately, brown and white rice (they are the same grain; brown rice is simply the whole grain while white rice has been milled and polished) are hyperaccumulators of cadmium and arsenic.  Arsenic is a more common pollutant; in the US, it gets into rice through pesticides used in old cotton fields that are flooded to farm rice, and through contaminated groundwater that floods fields in Bangladesh, for example.  The rice plant often takes up arsenic in place of silicon; rice plants require large amounts of silicon for optimal growth, and the chemical form of arsenite (AsIII) is very similar to silicon.  (Arsenic Transport in Rice and Biological Solutions to Reduce Arsenic Risk from Rice)  This is a very serious problem in eastern cultures where rice is a main staple of the diet for millions of people, and even those who can’t eat gluten, a protein in wheat that causes severe allergies in some people.

Unless you are reclaiming a swamp, new pristine land is not being created in great quantities, so we’re left with land that has centuries or millennia of human footprints, including toxic chemicals and metals.  Human use of the land in general leaves it in worse condition, but with the right plants, it’s possible to reverse a lot of the contamination.  If you want to make your own land–whether it’s your suburban backyard or acres in the country–cleaner and more habitable, get the soil tested and research which hyperaccumulating plants will make it better.  Once you get past the latin plant classifications, you may find the right plants also bring aesthetic beauty you wouldn’t have imagined. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Safety concerns after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio

Safety concerns after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio

On Friday, February 3, 2023, about 50 freight cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Unfortunately, the freight company Norfolk Southern did not release the full manifest of what was in the derailed cars to the public until about two weeks later.  It was first stated that only ten of these cars contained hazardous materials.  Five of those cars started leaking vinyl chloride, a gas which is used to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a hard plastic that composes many consumer products such as lawn chairs and water piping.  Vinyl chloride exposure increases risk of certain cancers, including liver cancer. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, some of the acute health effects of inhaling vinyl chloride are irritation of the nose, throat and lungs causing coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath.  It can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness and confusion. Higher levels can cause lightheadedness and passing out.  With chronic exposure, vinyl chloride is a carcinogen in humans. It has been shown to cause liver, brain, lung, and other types of cancer, as well as reproductive harm.


Other chemicals initially reported were:

  • Butyl acrylate, a liquid at normal atmospheric conditions, but it evaporates quickly.  It’s used to make plastics and paints.  Butyl Acrylate is listed as a “serious” health and flammability hazard by the New Jersey Department of Health.  Inhaling Butyl Acrylate can irritate the nose, throat and lungs causing coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath.  Exposure to Butyl Acrylate can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
  • A “small amount of non-hazardous lube oil”.

According to news headlines of February 13, additional chemicals contained in the train cars include:

  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE) is a colorless liquid with a mild odor, is used as a solvent for paints and enamels, as well as in cleaning products.  It’s a carcinogen and can immediately irritate the nose and throat to cause coughing, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, diahhrea, abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, confusion and passing out (Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet).
  • Ethyhexyl acrylate is a clear colorless liquid with a pleasant odor, whose vapors are heavier than air.  It’s used in the making of paints and plastics.  It can cause severe skin and eye irritation on contact and respiratory irritation if concentrated vapors are inhaled.
  • Isobutylene is usually transported as a colorless liquid under pressure, which becomes a gas when depressurized.  It’s highly flammable and used in the production of aviation gasoline, paints and coatings, packagings and plastics.  It can cause headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and fatigue when breathed in, as well as irritating the eyes, nose and throat. (Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

According to a Washington Post article of February 18, other chemicals include:

  • Polyethylene, a common plastic, is considered to be of low toxicity by the Environmental Working Group.
  • Dipropylene glycol, used in some skin care products, has low toxicity. (Environmental Working Group)
  • Propylene glycol, a food additive and skin care ingredient, has moderate allergenic potential.  (Environmental Working Group)
  • Polyvinyl (PVC), a common plastic, may contain phthalates (an endocrine and reproductive toxin), and can produce dioxin and hydrogen chloride if it's burned.
  • Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a clear, colorless, practically odorless, viscous, hygroscopic liquid with a sweet taste. It’s used in a wide range of industrial products but has also been involved in a number of prominent mass poisonings spanning back to 1937. (scientific review), causing renal (kidney) failure, neurological disorders, and/or death.
  • Benzene, a major ingredient in gasoline, is used to make many other industrial products, detergents, drugs and pesticides.  It’s a known carcinogen that can cause death at high levels of inhalation (10,000-20,000 ppm), and headaches, dizziness and drowsiness with only short-term inhalation.  Inhalation over extended periods or in high concentration can cause organ damage, especially to bone marrow and blood (Virginia Department of Health).

In order to mitigate explosion risk, crews drained and ignited the vinyl chloride on Monday February 6, causing a dark plume of smoke.  Unfortunately, the smoke contains phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are both irritants that can cause adverse effects at very low concentrations.  Here is what we know about these chemicals:

Phosgene, a product of the burning vinyl chloride, can occasionally poison workers in the plastics and chemical industries.  According to an academic review of 10 cases of phosgene exposure, “Phosgene inhalation may cause initially symptoms of respiratory tract irritation, patients feel fine thereafter, and then die of choking a day later because of build up of fluid in the lungs (delayed onset non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema). Phosgene exposure is associated with significant morbidity and mortality.”  The exposure limits are also very low for this chemical: 0.1 ppm (part per million) averaged over a 10-hour workshift and 0.2 ppm, not to be exceeded during any 15 minute work period, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  (Phosgene Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

Hydrogen Chloride, another of the products of burning vinyl chloride, is synonymous with Muriatic Acid and Hydrochloric Acid.  It’s a colorless gas with a very pungent odor, used to make other chemicals, or used in making cleaning products.  Very corrosive, it’s an irritant to the respiratory system and can cause severe burns to the skin, eyes and lungs.  Hydrogen Chloride is corrosive to steel and has an explosive reaction to some other substances. (Hydrogen Chloride Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

Since vinyl chloride and some other chemicals are heavier than air at ambient temperatures, officials have been testing areas near the ground and the basements of residents, to be sure that they are safe to return to their homes.  However, until all of the chemicals are removed from the site, there is the possibility of further escape of chemical gasses and liquids into the air, ground and water.  It’s been confirmed that some chemicals reached the Ohio River, so that at least one water supply company had to make provisions to obtain a different source of water from another river.  There have been reports of dead animals in the area such as chickens, dogs, foxes, and fish. 

There is a very real concern about soil and water contamination, because the vinyl chloride was first drained from five of the cars to an excavated trench and then burned.  This was not a lined trench, so the vinyl chloride contaminated the soil, where it can permeate and move into waterways with snow and rain.   According to the EPA’s letter to Norfolk Southern, chemicals were also seen entering storm drains.  The soil of the disposal trench was not excavated for disposal following the burning; in fact the repaired train line was quickly built over part of the trench/burn site.  Because vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, there’s likely to be lasting adverse effects from the quick disposal and cover-over.  

In addition, chemicals released from burning the vinyl chloride are potentially toxic.  Among them, dioxins can cause developmental problems in children, lead to reproductive and infertility problems in adults, result in miscarriages, damage the immune system, and interfere with hormones.  Dioxins can bind to an intracellular protein known as the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR). When that happens, the AhR can alter the expression, or function, of certain genes. The resulting cellular imbalance leads to a disruption in normal cell function and ultimately adverse health effects. (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)  Unfortunately, dioxins can persist for decades in soil and contaminate plants and animals, where they are stored in the fat reserves of the animals which graze on or contact the soil.  On Thursday, March 2, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to begin testing for dioxins in the area surrounding the derailment.

Many residents returning to their homes have requested air and well water testing, which is being conducted by the EPA.  Detection of these gasses and chemicals in many cases requires specialized testing equipment that has been calibrated to sense their presence, such as this meter. According to this fact sheet from the Illinois Department of Public Health, showering, bathing or cooking with water contaminated with vinyl chloride can release it into the air, where you can breathe it. Drinking contaminated water can also expose you to vinyl chloride; people can taste it starting at about 3400 parts per billion (ppb), however, the EPA recommends avoiding cooking or bathing with water that contains over 2 ppb.  The sheet advises that water can be safely filtered using carbon filters, however with the low safety level (2 ppb) and much higher sensory detection level (3400 ppb), there is no way to know if water has been safely filtered unless it’s tested.  Testing by private labs are one way to be sure that water is safe, but testing water continually, and purchasing bottled water, can come at significant cost to the homeowners.

Photo by Craig Marolf on Unsplash