Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana. image: Zach Piatt for AP
Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana. image: Zach Piatt for AP

Eastern Indiana recycling facility inferno billowing poisonous fumes

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Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana.image: Zach Piatt for AP
Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana. Image: Kevin Shook/Global Media Enterprise.

The intense inferno billowing poisonous fumes from a recycling facility in eastern Indiana has compelled thousands to evacuate and left countless others anxious about the potential repercussions on their well-being and surroundings.

On Tuesday, the blaze erupted at the Richmond plant, igniting plastics and other materials. The resulting plume of dense, dark smoke, as confirmed by Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones, is unequivocally hazardous to health and the environment.

“The combustion of plastics releases a myriad of chemicals, and the extent of their emissions during the ongoing fire is distressing,” expressed Jones on Tuesday evening. He further stated that the fire is expected to persist for several days.

In the meantime, the exact cause of the blaze remains unknown, but Mayor Dave Snow of Richmond revealed on Wednesday that city officials were cognizant of the fire hazard posed by the facility. “This was a fear for us,” Mayor Snow acknowledged.

Although there have been no reports of significant injuries, approximately 2,000 residents out of the 35,000 population of the city near the Ohio border were mandated to evacuate.

As of now, the evacuation zone encompasses residents within a half-mile radius of the fire. However, authorities are closely monitoring the wind direction, and the evacuation zone may be adjusted accordingly, according to Jones.

Residents located downwind of the designated evacuation zone, specifically those in the eastern and northeastern directions, were advised to take precautions and remain indoors. 

They were encouraged to shelter in place and ensure that their pets are brought indoors as well, to minimize exposure to the potentially hazardous smoke emanating from the fire. Taking preventive measures to protect oneself and pets from the smoke is of utmost importance to safeguard health and well-being.

‘The unknown compounds pose the greatest risk.’

As of mid-Wednesday morning, air quality tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not detect the presence of toxic chemicals such as styrene or benzene in the vicinity. However, the situation is being actively monitored, and further tests and assessments will continue to ensure that the air quality remains safe for residents in the affected area. It is crucial to keep abreast of updates from local authorities and follow their instructions to prioritize health and safety during this ongoing situation.

According to emergency response on-scene coordinator Jason Sewell, air quality tests will persist as the smoke dissipates, and the EPA has been collecting measurements of particulate matter and searching for toxic chemicals since overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.

Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, highlighted that the greatest concern lies with the unknown chemicals that may be formed as the various compounds burn in the fire. The combustion of different materials can result in the release of potentially harmful substances, and continued monitoring and analysis of the situation are imperative to fully understand the potential risks to health and the environment.

Firefighters try to douse an industrial fire Wednesday in Richmond, Indiana. image: Michael Conroy/AP
Firefighters try to douse an industrial fire Wednesday in Richmond, Indiana. image: Zach Piatt for AP.

“The combustion of plastic materials often results in the formation of a wide array of chemicals, including known carcinogens such as styrene, benzene, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons,” cautioned Peltier. “It is crucial for individuals to avoid exposure to these substances.”

Peltier further explained that potential short-term health risks from the toxic smoke could include symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, coughing, headache, and fatigue. Moreover, individuals with asthma may be particularly susceptible to exacerbation of their condition due to such complex exposures, and therefore, need to take extra precautions.

In the long term, prolonged exposure to high concentrations of toxins from the fire could increase the risk of cancer and other health issues. It is essential to prioritize safety measures and minimize exposure to the smoke to safeguard against potential health risks associated with both short-term and long-term exposures.

Peltier emphasized that short-term exposure to the toxic smoke from the fire does not guarantee the development of cancer. However, the risk of health complications, including cancer, may increase with longer duration and higher concentration of exposure.

For first responders in Richmond, Peltier stressed the importance of taking extraordinary precautions to ensure their safety. He recommended the use of full-face respirators, possibly with tanked air, as the smoke may contain a complex mixture of particles that can be filtered and gases that cannot.

Protecting against both particulate matter and gases is crucial for the well-being of the responders, and they should take all necessary measures to safeguard their health during their operations at the scene.

I was caught without shoes and tried to escape.

The sight of the thick black smoke from the fire in Richmond, Indiana may have brought back memories of the recent toxic train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio. In that incident, a Norfolk Southern train derailed while carrying hazardous materials, resulting in a days-long inferno.

Researchers have warned that the high levels of certain chemicals released during that disaster could pose long-term risks to the affected area.

The similarities between the two incidents highlight the need for thorough monitoring and assessment of potential health and environmental impacts from such accidents, as well as taking appropriate measures to mitigate risks and protect public health.

Brenda Jerrell, a resident of Richmond, didn’t waste any time in evacuating her home near the burning recycling plant. She described the smell as already being bad and left without hesitation, leaving behind personal belongings like her shoes and purse.

With a mask covering her mouth and nose, Jerrell expressed her concerns about the unknown substances that were burning and the potential for irritation. Despite taking precautions, she remained worried about the possible health effects from the toxic smoke.

Her swift action to evacuate and use protective measures highlights the sense of urgency and caution that many residents in the affected area may have felt during this environmental emergency.

As of now, the primary health concern is the smoke, according to Christine Stinson, the Executive Director of the Wayne County Health Department.

The fine particles in the smoke can lead to various respiratory problems such as burning eyes, chest tightness, asthma aggravation, and bronchitis, among others.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be actively involved in monitoring the air quality in Richmond, as confirmed by EPA Administrator Michael Regan in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. The EPA will work closely with the emergency response team on the ground and provide updates on the results of air quality tests.

“We’ve been on site since the beginning, and we’re going to stay there until we can assure that this community is not seeing any threats from the air quality implications here,” stated Regan, emphasizing the commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of the community affected by the fire at the recycling plant.

Experts say that toxic pollution may be dangerous.

According to Christine Stinson, the Executive Director of the Wayne County Health Department, N95 masks, which have been widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic, are effective in providing protection against particulate matter in the air.

The fire burned in a semitrailer before spreading to the facility, a fire official said. image: Kevin Shook/Global Media Enterprise.
The fire burned in a semitrailer before spreading to the facility, a fire official said. image: Michael Conroy/AP.

However, if people in the area are seeing or smelling smoke, or experiencing symptoms such as irritation, it is recommended that they leave the affected area.

Stinson emphasized the importance of taking proactive measures to safeguard health and safety. While N95 masks can provide a level of protection, it is crucial to be vigilant and take appropriate action if smoke is visible or if symptoms are experienced.

Leaving the area is advised to avoid potential respiratory problems and other health risks associated with exposure to smoke from the fire.

Judith Enck, former Regional EPA Administrator and current president of Beyond Plastics, which aims to end plastic pollution, has expressed concerns about the emission of planet-warming pollution from the fire in Richmond.

Enck highlighted that when plastics are burned, dioxin, a highly toxic pollutant that can cause cancer and reproductive and developmental problems, is often formed. Additionally, other harmful substances such as phthalates, bisphenols, and microplastics are released when plastics are burned.

Enck emphasized the importance of testing for dioxins by state officials, as even small amounts of dioxins can cause significant health damage.

She also highlighted the issue of stockpiling at plastics recycling facilities due to limited domestic markets, which can lead to increased risks of fires and emissions when the accumulated plastic is burned.

The facility in Richmond, which is currently burning, is reported to be completely full with plastics from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall, according to City Fire Chief Tim Brown. This underscores the challenges of managing plastic waste and the potential risks associated with stockpiling and burning of plastic materials.

Residents are advised by authorities not to remove yard debris.

Residents have identified melted plastics and roofing materials in pictures from the aftermath of the fire. However, they are advised not to disturb or touch the debris found in their yards, as it is unknown what chemicals may be present. Wayne County Emergency Management Agency officials have requested that residents refrain from touching the debris. EPA officials are planning to collect samples of the materials for analysis.

Workers knock down part of the site of an industrial fire Wednesday in Richmond, Indiana. Image: Michael Conroy/AP.
Workers knock down part of the site of an industrial fire Wednesday in Richmond, Indiana. Image: Michael Conroy/AP.

Sewell, an official from the EPA, highlighted that due to the age of the building, there is a possibility of asbestos-containing materials being present at the site. Asbestos is a naturally occurring toxic mineral that was commonly used in products like home insulation and hair dryers in the past. Sewell emphasized that residents should not disturb the debris, including refraining from mowing over it, if they find it in their yards. It is crucial to leave the debris untouched until further information is obtained to ensure safety.

The deadliest fire I’ve ever witnessed in my career 

According to Brown, the firefighters were called to the recycling facility on Tuesday and discovered a semitrailer located behind one of the buildings that was fully engulfed in flames.

Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana.image: Zach Piatt for AP
Smoke billows Tuesday from a fire at a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana. image: Kevin Shook/Global Media Enterprise

The trailer that caught fire was loaded with plastics of unknown type, and the fire quickly spread to other piles of plastics around the trailer and eventually to the building, as confirmed by Brown. Firefighters faced challenges in accessing the facility due to blocked access roads caused by piles of plastic. Brown stated that they were only able to access one side of the building, which posed a significant challenge.

As the fire grew out of control, the firefighters quickly retreated and switched to defensive mode. The flames spread to multiple buildings within the site, but fortunately, the fire was contained before it could reach residential areas, according to Brown.

Brown described the fire as the largest he has seen in his career. One firefighter sustained a minor injury, injuring his ankle and was released from the hospital. No other injuries were reported, and all individuals who were present at the building when the fire broke out have been accounted for, according to Brown.


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