The deadly explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas is still in the search and rescue stages, but serious air quality risks may now be affecting local residents and rescue workers. What can emergency workers and volunteers do to minimize the health hazards that are likely present on the site of, and in the immediate vicinity of, this most recent US explosion?
At a news conference, local Waco Police Department Sgt. William Swanton said this morning, "Air quality, at this point, is not an issue. It's not a concern." But accidents in other parts of the country, from small refinery fires to 9/11, have shown this may be a short-sighted assessment.
High-quality disposable respirators, also called dust masks, can shield rescue workers and volunteers from a range of airborne hazards. Masks like the Moldex 2730 or the 3M 8233 are both high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters capable of removing 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. These filters provide lung protection for toxic dust and other heavy industrial particles that are likely present in the air due to the West explosion. Another option is to put high quality HEPA filters on non-disposable half-face respirator masks like the 3M Lead and Asbestos Kits, or to use the more comfortable silicon 3M half-face masks with the proper filters for long-term wear.
Ammonium nitrate is often the first thing many people think of when they hear about a fertilizer plant. However ammonium nitrate (or NH4NO3) may not prove to be the most dangerous air contaminant associated with the explosion at this point. Once the fertilizer compounds containing the ammonium nitrate burn along with other chemicals present at the plant, the NH4NO3 is transformed into different compounds and particles, now airborne, which can have serious consequences for people in the area who aren't using proper preventative lung protection.
While the state and/or local officials may have provided Sgt. Swanton with his preliminary air quality report, a much smaller recent fire at the Richmond Chevron Refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area resulted in immediate shelter-in-place directives from the company as well as local agencies.
It appears the West Fertilizer Plant had no public warning system plans in place, and local police have been focusing on the immediate problems of rescue and stabilization of the injured. However, air quality and lung protection may prove, as they did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to be a longer term concern. While the dust from 9/11 is certainly of a different make-up, air pollution experts at the University of California Davis called those particulates "wildly toxic". As a simple preventative measure, it makes sense, until more is known about the air quality of the area, to treat the atmosphere of the West Texas explosion as similarly dangerous.
Photo credit: USA Today