9,000 sought care after Chevron refinery blaze

More than 9,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals for health problems stemming from the massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond last week, a health official told the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Dr. Wendel Brunner, the county’s public health director, said residents who were exposed to particulate matter complained of a variety of problems, including irritation to the nose, throat and eyes, along with asthma attacks, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Brunner said it initially appeared that no one’s symptoms were serious enough to require hospitalization for continued treatment, but there now are reports that two or three recent hospitalizations might be related to the fire, which began about 6:30 p.m. Aug. 6.

Air samples thus far haven’t shown the presence of cancer-causing chemicals that are sometimes present with refinery fires, Brunner said.

“That’s good news, but it’s not the whole story because we still don’t have a measure of the particulate matter,” he said.
Brunner said some parts of the county’s community warning system worked well, but it took three hours for the automated system to phone all of the residents on its contact list to alert them about the fire.

“The phone system worked particularly poorly and must be looked into,” he said.

Randy Sawyer, chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer for Contra Costa Health Services, joined Brunner in briefing the Board of Supervisors and agreed that residents need to be alerted more quickly.

Sawyer said while the refinery fire was a serious event, “it could have been far worse.”

He said a number of Chevron employees could have died, but managed to reach safety just before a leaky pipe created a highly flammable vapor cloud.

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