By Collin Eaton
DEER PARK, Texas (Reuters) - Hundreds of neighborhood residents of a petrochemical plant that burned for three days and briefly emitted cancer-causing benzene into the air brought their coughs, headaches and other symptoms to a mobile clinic on Friday set up by local health officials.
While some of the symptoms people complained of are consistent with exposure to chemicals, health officials said they treated a wide variety of ailments, including the anxiety that comes with living near an industrial accident.
"The community is literally right next door to the plant," said Les Becker, director of operations for Harris County Public Health, at the clinic which was set up near the site of the blaze. "It’s natural and normal to be afraid.”
The blaze from 11 burning fuel tanks at Mitsui unit Intercontinental Terminals Co, which began on Monday, sent up a plume of black smoke that obscured part of the sky until it was put out on Wednesday.
On Thursday, however, residents of Deer Park and nearby Galena Park, both just east of Houston, were told to shelter in place for about eight hours after reports of high levels of benzene or other volatile organic compounds were detected. No injuries were reported.
The fire re-ignited on Friday, but was quickly put out.
One woman who came to the clinic, Marlene Beltran, 20, a University of Houston student, complained of headaches, dizziness and light-headedness.
“I’ve lived here for 13 years and it’s never been a concern, she said. "I always thought things were under control. This has never happened.”
A man who came to the clinic, Walter Levine, 53, a former truck driver, complained of headaches, coughing and nausea.
The American Cancer Society website says long-term exposure to benzene, a colorless chemical with a sweet odor, is known to cause cancer, in particular leukemia, as well as anemia and other blood ailments.
Symptoms commonly associated with exposure to benzene and other chemicals include coughing, difficulty breathing, burning, headaches, nausea, dizziness and irritation to eyes, ears, nose and throat, Harris County Public Health spokeswoman Elizabeth Perez said.
She said officials were still analyzing patients' data.
"People came in for a wide variety of reasons," Perez said by telephone. "There were individuals who could have showed up because of some respiratory issues. But it didn't mean that it was because of this event.”
The mobile unit, one of nine that county officials use to provide free health services, was visited by 300 people in Deer Park on Thursday and 500 on Friday, officials said.
(Reporting by Collin Eaton in Deer Park, Texas; Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)