Companies Ignored Warnings Before Dangerous Chemical Fires

Two recent chemical and plastics fires that exposed communities to toxic chemicals have once again exposed the government’s limited ability to regulate safety practices by manufacturers.

In April, an Indiana plastics fire spewed toxic chemicals, including benzene and hydrogen cyanide, into the surrounding community. Meanwhile, a new investigation by ProPublica and Grist exploring the causes of a March 2019 chemical fire at a Houston-area tank farm, found that regulators repeatedly documented — but did little to address — problems at the site.

The fire released toxic chemicals into nearby communities for weeks. Residents nearby were ordered to evacuate, and others were required to shelter in place to avoid exposure to the chemicals.

Residents Exposed to Benzene, Asbestos and More

An April 2023 fire at a plastic recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana, sent plumes of black smoke into the air. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) checked air quality, they found evidence of benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and volatile organic compounds in the smoke.

Facts about benzene

Benzene is a widely used industrial chemical found in many petroleum-based products, including glues, adhesives, cleaning products, paint strippers, and gasoline. It is a known carcinogen linked to serious health problems, including:

  • Leukemia and other blood-related cancers
  • Numerous types of cancers
  • Birth defects, including childhood leukemia

Residents may also have been exposed to asbestos in particles that fell in yards and the surrounding area. Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining around the lungs, as well as other types of cancer and lung disease. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

The company reportedly ignored warnings long before the fire broke out. Local authorities had cited the owner multiple times for safety deficits, but no improvements were made. The city took ownership of a portion of the land on which the facility stands, but residents say nothing was done to improve safety.

Warnings Before Huge Texas Chemical Fire

The lack of government response in the Indiana fire mirrors a previous event. In 2019, a fire broke out at a chemical storage facility outside Houston, releasing hazardous amounts of benzene and other toxic chemicals into the air for several weeks. The EPA had visited the International Terminal Company storage site — and documented problems — on numerous occasions before the fire broke out, but the dangers were never addressed. After the fire, regulators continued to fail those affected by the disaster by withholding data about high levels of pollutants that remained in the air.

When the Government Doesn’t Protect Us

In each of these toxic events, there were warnings that an emergency could happen at any time, but regulators failed to ensure that the problems were addressed instead of simply documented.

In the Texas fire, officials accepted the word of the company that problems had been addressed without verifying.

In Indiana, the owner fought the city’s requests and did not comply with repeated requests from the city to clean up the property. City officials there said they were unable to begin cleanup work because they needed funding from the EPA. Officials also claimed that the property owner bore the financial and physical responsibility for the cleanup.

None of these justifications help those who were exposed to toxic chemicals handle the long-term health consequences.

How We Help Victims of Toxic Exposure

The attorneys of our birth defects victims’ alliance understand the pain that families face when coping with life-altering birth defects—and the frustration of knowing they could have been prevented. Our team has over 40 years of combined experience in birth defects litigation in cases involving semiconductor and electronics manufacturing, pesticides, and energy production. We have the resources and experience to fight on behalf of our clients against corporations that put them in danger. Call us to see how we can help you and your family receive justice for birth defects.