Since Monday's fire erupted just after 6pm, more than 600 people have been treated in emergency departments at Kaiser in Richmond and Doctors Medical Center in nearby San Pablo for symptoms caused by the Chevron refinery fire.
One of them was Point Richmond resident Cheri Edwards. “The smoke was kind of like an oily smell, it was an oily smell, and I have asthma really bad. And right now I’m at the bus stop trying to go to Kaiser because I have been having respiratory problems."
Besides breathing problems, people also reported symptoms including sore throats and watery eyes. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to "a full toxic soup of hundreds, probably thousands, of combustion products and byproducts," Greg Karras, senior scientist with the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment, told a Forum audience Tuesday morning.
Richmond is a low socioeconomic community with a high proportion of African American residents that suffers disproportionate rates of asthma and other illnesses. Living near major refineries adds to negative health impacts. "The cumulative impact of all of the pollution in this overburdened community where there's been a legacy of environmental racism frankly, is also part of the puzzle," Karras told me in an interview following Forum.
In a phone interview, Randy Sawyer director of Contra Costa Health Services Hazardous Materials Program agreed that "there's all kinds of chemicals that can be in the fire. But the biggest concern that we had last night was the particulates in the smoke because they can lodge in your lungs."
Particulates, also called particulate matter, are a complex mix of tiny bits of pollution and liquid droplets. In addition to lodging in a person's lungs, they can also get into the bloodstream and cause heart problems.
The shelter-in-place order was lifted just after 11pm Monday night. People in Richmond today are getting back to normal -- while pondering plenty of remaining questions. My colleagues at Forum received a question they could not address during their broadcast from a listener concerned about "toxic particulate matter that may or may not have been deposited in outdoor play structures, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, etc."
"I don’t expect too much deposits on people’s cars, but if they see anything," Sawyer says, "it can be washed off, and that should be fine for them. It’s mostly the material would be kind of oily."
Sawyer explained that "shelter-in-place" is the safest thing for residents to do in crises such as this refinery fire. While there is still "some infiltration, the concentrations inside will be far less than what it is outside." He says if everyone tries to evacuate at once, then everyone is outside "stuck right in the cloud, and that could be very dangerous."
Finally, Sawyer recommended that people who were advised to shelter-in-place air out their homes today.
This post was updated at 4:15pm to reflect the number of people who have been to the emergency room.