Particulates below state standard after refinery fire, testing proved difficult

Chemicals lingered in the air above Richmond after the Chevron refinery fire. Photo by: Tawanda Kanhema

Chemicals lingered in the air above Richmond after the Chevron refinery fire. Photo by: Tawanda Kanhema

Results from a Bay Area Air Quality Management District analysis of particulate matter in the air over Richmond following the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery fire show slightly elevated levels of elemental carbon, which is common after a fire. Those levels are still well below state and federal air quality standards, the BAAQMD announced Thursday.

Although the official analysis showed low levels, the smoke plume went several thousand feet into the air and the wind blew it east, said Wendel Brunner, director of public health for Contra Costa Health Services. Several newspaper stories have suggested that most of the smoke blew past the agency’s monitors.

And that is just one of the challenges of accurately measuring particulate levels. Particulates tend to stay localized and the study only shows the levels of particulates in one region, said Lisa Fasano, the communications director for BAAQMD. Surrounding regions might have considerably more or less particulates that a general sample can miss.

Particulates are tiny pieces of solid or liquid suspended in the air, thinner than a strand of hair and often seen after a fire. They are small enough to get past the body’s defenses and into the lungs, and are known to cause asthma, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses.

“The particulate results are what we expected to see given that the monitoring began at midnight after the fire was out,” said Brunner, in a press release. “These results, however, do not suggest there were not health impacts experienced by residents in the immediate area.”

The air quality district continues to urge any residents with respiratory issues to seek medical attention, especially those with preexisting conditions such as asthma.

“We know that Richmond residents were impacted by particulate matter in the area because it was a big fire, a big smoke flume,” Fasano said.

The BAAQMD collected samples between midnight Aug. 7 and midnight Aug. 8 at a station located two miles from the refinery. Other areas have not been analyzed as of yet.

The organization tested for elemental carbon, organic carbon, weight and other chemical components of particulate matter, but only found particulates connected to a fire burning.

“It basically told us there was something burning in the air,” Fasano said.

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