Responding to the Fires in Texas with Air and Water Quality Monitoring
I am back on the ground with my team measuring air and water quality in the aftermath of the industrial fires that burned just outside Houston in Deer Park, Texas. We are already finding elevated levels of benzene, a toxic chemical, in the Houston Ship Channel area and are working with the Environmental Defense Fund and others to get the data quickly to local officials.
While we are in the field taking measurements, you can learn more through this press release we just issued:
While the smoke has cleared in Houston following days of petrochemical fires at an industrial plant, the risk in the air still remains. Without the heat from the fires to lift dangerous chemicals high into the atmosphere, toxic gases can linger closer to the ground, threatening populated areas. To investigate the potential danger these chemicals are posing to area residents, Silicon Valley-based startup Entanglement Technologies is on the ground monitoring air and water quality with its advanced sensors. Already, the research team has found significantly high benzene levels that potential endanger area residents.
Working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Galveston Bay Foundation, Entanglement has been measuring benzene levels in Deer Park, Galveston Bay, and the Houston Ship Channel in Texas after fires burned a petrochemical storage facility for four days, sending a thick plume of black smoke over the region. Among the aromatic chemicals, benzene has the worst toxicity profile, posing a high health risk as a known carcinogen.
Using conventional air quality monitoring technology, local officials found that concentrations of volatile organic compounds were higher on March 21 — the day after the fires were extinguished — and issued a shelter-in-place order. On March 23, the Entanglement team detected elevated and potentially hazardous levels of benzene in an industrial area across the Houston Ship Channel from the Intercontinental Terminals Co.’s facility, indicating the continued release of benzene from fire-damaged tanks.
EDF has alerted local officials of the measurements, and the city of Houston has confirmed that these data are the highest quality available on air toxics from the fire. The data will be forthcoming online.
With Entanglement’s AROMA-VOC analyzer, the team on the ground is analyzing water and air for concentrations of highly toxic, volatile chemicals such as benzene in real time with a high level of accuracy across a large area. Entanglement Technologies has deployed the AROMA-VOC inside the City of Houston’s Mobile Atmospheric Laboratory (MAML) to provide real-time data. The AROMA will draw in air samples every 10 minutes and then quickly analyze for toxic chemicals, allowing the team to see the data in real time.
When not measuring air, AROMA will be testing the waterways around the burning tanks. Fire retardants used to douse the fire have made their way into the Houston Ship Channel, along with product from the tanks that did not combust during the fire. The AROMA-VOC analyzer provides seamless transitions between air and water analysis.
In addition to benzene, Entanglement is working with Texas A&M to test for PFAS (perfluorinated alkyls), which were used to fight the fires and are also highly toxic. Ethylbenzene and xylenes are also chemicals of interest.
“The damage from the fires has resulted in the release of many chemicals into the air and water and is continuing to have a significant impact on the region,” says Anthony Miller, CEO of Entanglement. “We are working to provide critical data on the ground to assess the impact and inform decisions regarding based on chemical analyses.”
“We are taking our own measurements because there have been noticeable gaps in information since the fire began,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at EDF. “With Entanglement Technologies, we are able to bring more sophisticated monitoring equipment to the scene than government agencies have deployed. We can get results quickly and share data transparently with the public and local officials. Robust collection of data using the best instruments available is essential for officials to make critical public health decisions.”
Entanglement has worked with EDF before to make its high-tech environmental monitoring available in the wake of emergency events. EDF brought Entanglement to Houston in 2017 while parts of the city were still flooded because of Hurricane Harvey to analyze chemicals leaking from industrial sites. In 2018, they worked together in North Carolina to help with air and water quality monitoring after Hurricane Florence. The team also has monitored chemical emissions from fires across the West in the last several years, including the recent Camp Fire in the San Francisco Bay area.
The Entanglement team will continue to provide their data and analysis to EDF and the Galveston Bay Foundation in coordination with local officials. The hope is to provide rapid data that can inform decisions on the ground to keep area residents out of harm’s way.
Tony Miller is the CEO and a co-founder of Entanglement Technologies.