West Virginia University experts are available to comment on the Dec. 8 Charleston-area chemical plant explosion. Harry Finklea, professor emeritus, C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry can offer insights into the chemicals, while Michael McCawley, clinical associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, can comment on the effects of weather and terrain, the history of chemical plants in the area and the importance of vigilance in the areas around the plants.
“Chlorinated dry bleach is calcium hypochlorite. If dispersed into the air where it can contact moisture, then the hypochlorite can react with water to form chlorine gas. The smell around public swimming pools is due to residual chlorine because a related salt, sodium hypochlorite, is used as a disinfectant. In higher concentrations, chlorine is toxic. That is likely why a shelter-in-place order was issued.” –Harry Finklea, professor emeritus, C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry
“With the recent explosion at the Belle Chemour Chemical Plant it is important that the residents in Charleston understand the part that weather and terrain play in the risk of exposure to air pollution. The location of the plant in question and the surrounding community is at the bottom of a river valley. These valleys, and the local weather that happens because of them, can typically limit the dilution of any chemicals discharged into the air. This can seriously increase the risk of overexposure and the subsequent, perhaps serious, health effects that come with it. While the people who live in these areas are aware of this issue and have learned to take precautions against it. But, familiarity can breed contempt or, perhaps in this case, apathy to one’s own safety. It bears repeating, then, that the instructions for sheltering in place when air emission episodes such as fires, explosions or accidental releases occur, should be taken seriously and followed to the letter, regardless of how often they might seem to occur.”
“There is a history in what has been called “Chemical Valley” of environmental releases. For instance, there was the 2008 Bayer Crop Sciences Explosion and subsequent furor over the potential for a Methyl isocyanate release from the adjoining and possibly damaged Union Carbide plant, envisioned as potentially as catastrophic for Charleston as the Bhopal, India, release from a similar disaster which killed hundreds to thousands of people depending upon the source you use. Most releases have fortunately not been catastrophic. There was also the more recent waterborne release of MCE from Freedom Industries in 2014. While not an air pollution episode, the deprivation of easily obtained clean water lasting for months, became part of the fabric of everyday experience. Lesser environmentally-related incidents by comparison might, therefore, be easily shaken off and ignored. That is where the danger lies.”
“It is sometimes difficult to predict, certainly with the special terrain and weather conditions of the Charleston area, how an incident might unfold. Will it start out mildly and become more dangerous with time? Will it dissipate quickly? Is it an episode that can be afforded with little notice and precautions ignored or is it a steadily building catastrophe in the making. While Charleston has been fortunate – vigilance will always remain a necessity. Education and drills to prepare for the worst while praying for only the best to actually occur seems to still be called for. Last night’s episode should be a reminder of that.” —Michael McCawley, clinical associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences
West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.
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