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Toxic benzene lingered for weeks after shelter-in-place warnings ended following 2019 Houston-area chemical fire

The Texas Tribune analyzed previously unreported air monitoring data and records from the 2019 ITC chemical disaster near Houston and found that high benzene levels lingered in the air for two weeks after public health measures were lifted. Experts say more shelter-in-place advisories should have been issued.

Mario Ochoa and his son Castiel Winchester sit on a rock in Houston’s Hermann Park on Feb. 25. Ochoa said he took his son to a park near his southeast Houston home days after the ITC fire in 2019. “At the time, I didn’t even think about what the contamination would be if he was rolling around playing in the grass,” Ochoa said.

Fire rages as residents fall ill — March 17-19, 2019

Eddie Guevara said his eyes burned and he experienced a rapid heartbeat and chest pains after returning from work the evening after the ITC fire broke out in 2019.
Elvia Guevara holds her grandson Xavier during his Spider-Man-themed first birthday party on Feb. 11 in Pasadena. Guevara said the 2019 ITC disaster “was not just a little fire. You heard of people having symptoms. ... What do we do as parents to make sure that our children are okay?”
First: Eddie Guevara laughs with friends during his son Xavier’s birthday party on Feb. 11 in Pasadena. Days after the ITC fire began, Guevara and his brother Anthony sat in the backyard singing and playing huapangos, an upbeat Mexican style of music. Guevara remembers playing his accordion as a black cloud from the chemical fire could be seen from their home. Second: Eddie Guevara holds Xavier during his birthday party. The Guevara family has lived in Deer Park for 15 years.

With fire out, officials declare victory — March 20, 2019 

First: The Houston Ship Channel winds past the ITC facility in Harris County. Second: Mary Ann Contreras, an assistant funeral director at Rosewood Funeral Home, at a Pasadena cemetery on Feb. 9. Contreras became so ill after attending an outdoor funeral service the week of the ITC fire that she sought care at an emergency room. “I am traumatized now every time I see smoke," she said.

A second shelter-in-place when benzene “rears its ugly head” — March 21-22, 2019

A Deer Park neighborhood next to Highway 225, which borders the refineries, petrochemical plants and industrial storage tanks that line the Houston Ship Channel. In 2019, air quality inspectors found that high levels of benzene emissions had wafted across the highway and into residential areas of Deer Park in the weeks after the ITC chemical fire was extinguished.

Benzene pollution lingers as life returns to normal — March 25-29, 2019

Benzene drifts into Deer Park, but residents aren’t warned — March 31, 2019 

A playground at San Jacinto Elementary School, located in Deer Park a few miles from the highly industrialized Houston Ship Channel. On March 31, 2019, air quality inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency recorded extremely high levels of benzene in the air as they drove past the elementary school. Residents were not warned about the pollution present in the community that day.

Uncertainty looms over benzene exposure

Xavier Guevara, 1, tries to walk from his mom Citlali Cabrera to his dad, Eddie Guevara, in his grandparents’ front yard on Feb. 21 in Deer Park. Eddie said protecting his son’s future is his priority. Before leaving work, he strips off his uniform and gear, wraps his shoes in a towel and takes a shower to avoid smelling like chemicals when he gets home. “The last thing I want to do is bring it to [Citlali] and my son,” he said.

Four years later

Mario Ochoa and his son Castiel Winchester sit in the car after a day of walking through Hermann Park in Houston on Feb. 25. Four years after the 2019 chemical fire, Ochoa’s now 8-year-old son struggles with sinus infections and is more wary than he once was of playing outdoors.

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