Hurricane Laura Causes Chemical Fire, CDC Warns of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning


Smoke rises from a burning chemical plant after the passing of Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana on Aug. 27, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images

When Hurricane Laura struck the Gulf Coast early on Thursday with record-setting winds and storm surges that caused flooding, it was bearing down on an area full of chemical plants. The fears about having toxic chemicals in an area increasingly vulnerable to tropical storms are playing out as a chemical plant caught fire and sent toxic plumes into the air throughout the day, as The New York Times reported.

A fire ripped through a chlorine factory, burning throughout the day and into the night Thursday. It released a toxic smoke into the air that forced Louisiana’s Governor Jon Bel Edwards to warn residents to turn off their air conditioners, seal off their windows and doors, and stay inside, according to The Washington Post.

The fire took place at a BioLab facility that manufacturers chlorine for swimming pools and disinfectants. According to Louisiana State Police Superintendent Kevin W. Reeves, the chlorine in the factory started to decompose, which generated enough heat to start the blaze. From there, a small crew of employees tried, in vain, to extinguish the blaze before calling fire officials, as The Washington Post reported.

Chlorine can be dangerous to the lungs and respiratory passages if inhaled. It also causes blisters and rashes on the skin. State officials quickly installed air quality monitors. During an afternoon press conference, State Fire Marshall Butch Browning said no airborne chlorine was detected, according to NPR.

“What they have found is no low-level detection of chlorine offsite, where people walk and where people gather — which is a good thing,” Browning said. “The cloud, the plume, as it goes in the air and moves out there is chlorine. Those chemicals are falling in the lake, which is the right place for it because it dilutes the chlorine. So that, we don’t believe, is endangering anyone.”

The burning chemical factory illuminates the danger the climate crisis poses to the Gulf Coast, which is dotted with chemical factories and oil refineries, many of which are adjacent to poor and racial minority communities. BioLab, near the community of Mossville, is one of more than a dozen industrial facilities in the area. In Mossville, residents have long breathed air pollutants from the nearby industrial facilities, according to The New York Times.

“The Biolab facility that’s burning out of control right now is part of the toxic soup that Mossville residents have been exposed to for decades,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans.

The exposure to toxic air is reminiscent of the plight of Reserve, Louisiana, a few miles up the Mississippi River, which is home to a chemical plant and was the focus of The Guardian’s Cancer Alley series. Residents there are 50 times more likely than the general population to develop cancer.

While residents of Mossville have to deal with the air pollution from industry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also warning people about creating their own air pollution. Now that power is knocked to out to hundreds of thousands of homes, the CDC issued a health advisory warning about the dangers of carbon monoxide, as CNN reported.

The CDC is worried that people will use gasoline-powered generators or gas and charcoal grill in the wrong setting. “If used or placed improperly, these sources can lead to CO build up inside buildings, garages, or campers and poison the people and animals inside,” the CDC said, as CNN reported.

The CDC is advising people in the area to look out for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which are fairly non-descript, but may include nausea, vomiting and dizziness, especially if several people have the same complaint and do not have fever, according to CNN.

“Appropriate and prompt diagnostic testing and treatment are crucial to reduce morbidity and prevent mortality from CO poisoning,” the CDC said. “Identifying and mitigating the CO source is critical in preventing other poisoning cases.”

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