Health experts find minimal long-term effects from refinery fire

Richmond resident Sylvia Gray-White wears a respirator mask in front of a Chevron billboard near Interstate 80 on Macdonald Avenue. Gray-White says she carries the respirator mask with her at all times. She says working near the Chevron refinery for 10 years resulted in numerous health problems. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Richmond resident Sylvia Gray-White wears a respirator mask in front of a Chevron billboard near Interstate 80 on Macdonald Avenue. Gray-White says she carries the respirator mask with her at all times. She says working near the Chevron refinery for 10 years resulted in numerous health problems. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Sylvia Gray-White says all Richmond residents should find out whether toxic chemicals are present in their bodies.

“Everybody here in this city should have a test to find out what’s in their bodies so they can remove it,” Gray-White said. “It’s killing us.”

Gray-White, 71, has lived in Richmond since the 1950s. The former administrator became a community activist after working near the Chevron refinery for 10 years and became subject to numerous health problems: anxiety, panic attacks and an increased heart rate.

“Everything that’s really happened to me physically can be traced to the refinery,” she said.

Gray-White is one of many citizens that worry about the health effects of Chevron’s Richmond refinery in the wake of the August 2012 fire, which released a toxic black smoke plume that was visible throughout much of the Bay Area. More than 15,000 people visited emergency rooms for treatment in the following days.

Health officials say that long-term health effects from last year’s fire are unclear.

Dr. Wendel Brunner, the director of Contra Costa Health Services for 30 years, said increased levels of anxiety following the fire have created a health concern.

“If you’re living in the shadow of Chevron and you have a legitimate reason to worry about whether this is going to happen again or something worse — that … is a chronic health effect and one that needs to be addressed by insuring that this kind of thing doesn’t happen,” Brunner said.

Brunner said high rates of asthma do exist in the parts of West Contra Costa County near the Chevron refinery, though he doesn’t believe other long-term effects exist from the fire, though he added, “that doesn’t make it OK.”

The day of the fire, Gray-White said she sheltered in place at her home in East Richmond Heights. The next day, she offered to take a friend to the hospital when she began to feel ill.

“It felt like someone was sitting on my head,” she said. “I started to cry. I started to feel very depressed and I just didn’t know what was going on.”

She sought treatment and, after having her blood pressured checked, she said clinicians advised her to take an aspirin and a cough drop.

“Because of our situation here (in Richmond), we need to have a medical society that knows how to treat environmental illnesses,” she said. “Nobody is testing for what happened on that day, even though all those chemicals were out there.”

Gray-White said she had a hair analysis test done on herself in May by Trace Elements Inc., a company that provides hair-tissue mineral analysis, mostly for health-care workers, according to its website.

Her test came back with high levels of boron, an element that is generally thought to be safe, according to a review of the science published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

The test also showed low levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, aluminum and uranium, which all were within an acceptable range, according to the analysis document provided by Gray-White.

One health expert who has studied respiratory and cardiovascular health effects of air pollutants for more than 25 years cast doubt on long-term health effects from the Chevron fire.

“In general, not a lot is known about these kinds of petroleum fires, in terms of long-term effects,” said Dr. John Balmes, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

Balmes said most people who visited the emergency room had acute effects, such as irritated eyes, nose and throat, coughing and exacerbation of asthma, which “should resolve over time and without development of chronic effects.” But he said there were some exceptions, which depended on the dose of the inhaled smoke from the fire as well as the person’s health.

“If the person had underlying asthma to start with, the exposure to smoke might make your asthma worse permanently,” he said, though he added, “Only people that were around the fire would have had really high levels of exposure” to develop asthma.

“Most of the individuals who had acute effects won’t have chronic effects,” Balmes said.

Regardless, Gray-White isn’t taking any chances. For the past year, she has carried around a respirator mask in her purse.

“If I go past 23rd Street, I’m going to put something on because that’s when it starts to bother me,” she said.

She said she wants Richmond residents to have access to a test for toxins.

“If they tested people, they would find these toxins and then Chevron would be held accountable,” she said. “If they don’t know what’s in you and can’t tell you, then they’re not held responsible for what goes on.”

One Comment

  1. Tony Suggs

    Boron, lead and aluminum in small amounts are in the EBMUD water we drink every day. Mercury is in most sea food. Arsenic is in some fruits and vegetable in small amounts. Uranium is naturally occurring in the environment.

    All the “contaminants” reported in her test could have come from many different sources, not just Chevron.

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