Harris County officials: Elevated benzene found, Deer Park residents stay inside

Harris County officials said high benzene levels have been detected near the Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility that caught fire this week. The National Guard has been called in and residents of Deer Park told to stay inside.

The county's emergency management agency said a civil support team from the Texas National Guard was supporting air monitoring operations in the area. According to the U.S. Air Force, the team is made up of Air Force and Army personnel.

The Texas Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that benzene levels near the facility didn't pose a health concern. But authorities issued a shelter-in-place order Thursday following "reports of action levels of benzene or other volatile organic compounds" within Deer Park, according to the city.

Harris County advised residents to remain inside until further notice, keep doors and windows closed and turn off air conditioning and heating systems. The county also said gaps, holes or cracks should be covered with wet towels or sheets to keep vapors from entering homes.

Several school districts also canceled classes for the day, citing "unfavorable air quality conditions." The fire started Sunday, sending a huge, dark plume into the air for several days before crews extinguished the blaze on Wednesday.

The fire spread to storage tanks holding components of gasoline and materials used in nail polish remover, glues and paint thinner. Environmental groups said residents who live near the facility have experienced various symptoms, including headaches, nausea and nose bleeds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, long-term exposure to the highly flammable chemical causes harmful effects in the blood, including bone marrow. The state Environmental Protection Agency conducted air quality tests throughout the Houston area, both on the ground and from a small airplane, and "measured no levels of hazardous concentrations," agency official Adam Adams said Wednesday.

The EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Wednesday that they were waiting for test results of water samples to determine any potential impacts from the foam used to fight the fire on waterways next to the storage facility, including the Houston Ship Channel.