In the hour around noon last Thursday, the air at the Bocce Courts on Madison Avenue in Lackawanna contained 180 times more carcinogenic benzene than background levels, according to air quality monitoring data.
The data -- which also showed elevated levels of the suspected carcinogens vinyl chloride, butadiene and styrene and higher levels of toluene at air monitoring devices in neighborhoods near the fire -- was revealed Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
DEC and state health officials said the results were not unlike what would be expected to occur in the air nearby a large industrial fire like the one that erupted at the former Bethlehem Steel plant coal mill on Route 5 in Lackawanna.
"They found what we expect to be typical constituents of fires," said Dr. Nathan Graber, of the state health department's Center for Environmental Health. during a conference call Wednesday.
The analysis shows:
- vinyl chloride at the Spruce Street tennis court in the nearby Bethlehem Park neighborhood was 22 times higher than background levels in the roughly hour before noon Thursday.
- there was more than 257 times the background level of 1,3-butadiene and nearly 16 times the styrene at the bocce field around the same time Thursday.
- toluene, which can cause deleterious effects on the nervous system, was nearly 13 times higher at the bocce court location than background levels.
Here are a couple of the graphics outlining the findings that were presented by the DEC during Wednesday's conference call:
Graber said during fires like the one in Lackawanna last week "there's a concern" for what is burning and what materials nearby residents may be exposed to.
That's why precautionary measures such as orders to "shelter-in-place" and later evacuations of the neighborhood limited any short-term exposure to the chemicals.
Officials believe residents smartly heeded those orders.
The Erie County health department "did not see an increase in emergency department visits during this time, so people were following the recommendations," said Brian Lay, the director of the DEC's bureau of air quality surveillance.
Graber said any possible exposures would have been a "short-term concern," but advises anyone who might experience "continuing symptoms" to contact their personal care providers for follow-up evaluation.
Besides the chemical components in the smoke, state data also showed that particulate matter - soot - in the air at spots in the neighborhood downwind of the burning buildings was also hazardous at times depending on wind direction.
Some who live in the neighborhood, like Pine Street resident Amy Claroni, remain concerned about their health.
"I'd like to know about the air quality in my house," Claroni said. "I love my lungs. I don't want to take a chance."
Claroni, who is in graduate school to become a nurse practitioner, is particularly concerned about asbestos that might have been used in the construction there and could have become airborne during the fire and building collapse.
"The impact that has on human health is awful, and that's just asbestos," Claroni said.
That's an issue that state Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns continues seeking answers to.
"I still have a concern there," Kearns said. "We know the makeup of the building, and that there was asbestos involved there."
The DEC's air results do not include asbestos, and neither does its testing.
The DEC published a webpage dedicated to the Bethlehem Steel Plant Fire and air quality results.
Kearns demanded the state immediately disclose its air quality results after the fire, and requested the DEC and health officials hold a meeting with the public to disclose their findings and hear from concerned residents. He said he satisfied with the response so far.
"Everything I've asked them to do, they've done, to their credit," Kearns said.
"But, we need to have something to get people some one-on-one attention. There are a lot of people who are scared, and don't want to go back to their houses. We need greater outreach beyond an information sheet. We need one-on-one attention."
DEC and state health department officials said a public meeting with residents will be scheduled in Lackawanna.
The date has yet to be finalized.