When Jay Olaguer, the air-quality science program director at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), and his team of researchers conducted a month-long study in two neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel, they found plumes of benzene from the nearby petrochemical industry in expected places. But they were also surprised by some unexpected results.
He and his fellow scientists detected many pollutants including benzene coming from the refineries, rail yard and barges in the channel. That was expected. But they also discovered “sporadic, unpredictable belches” of benzene emitted from the ground.
Benzene, a key ingredient in gasoline, is a sweet-smelling chemical that is used to make plastics, lubricants, dyes and adhesives. It has also been linked to several blood disorders and cancers, specifically leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Looking at the map they had created of Galena Park, a city of about 10,000 residents, Olaguer realized they had discovered something important. “We were seeing the real emissions going into this neighborhood, and no one has been measuring that.”
Olaguer spent more than eight years working to gather support and funding from universities and government entities that would allow HARC to conduct air-quality tests in what would become the Benzene and Other Toxic Exposure Study (BEE-TEX). Now the funding was paying off. The toxic emissions Olaguer’s team discovered appear to be radiating from the petrochemical industrial complex’s pipelines under the waterway.
The HARC study found that the benzene is billowing into Galena Park and Manchester, the second neighborhood included in the study, at rates that are “close to dangerous” in exposures that are short-term. For the long-term, the rate of benzene exposure is well in excess of the safety limits, according to the report findings.
Juan Flores, a Galena Park resident and city commissioner, is grateful for the HARC research. “Keep in mind, a lot of people live here because they work in the refineries,” Flores says. “People dismiss the air pollution thing, partly because it’s not always something you can see. You see the refineries all around us, of course, but the actual toxic emissions, a lot of them are invisible. And that’s the problem; since people can’t see them, they tend to dismiss them.”