Weighing in on health and safety concerns from Atlanta’s highway collapse and chemical fire

The recent fire leading to the I-85 highway collapse was a wake-up call for the city to review the storage location of potentially toxic materials that could damage surrounding structures and harm public health; especially if there were another fire or worse, an explosion. I’m thankful there were no fatalities or serious injuries, but the air pollution and potential health impacts are also worth noting.

I was in close proximity to the fire as I drove southbound on GA-400, approaching the merge lane into I-85 South. It was evident by the smoke plumes and highway warnings that there was impending danger ahead. Thanks to the HERO driver, I was able to make a quick exit off the highway and detour through local roads and fortunately, reached home safely and in a timely manner. I felt bad for the nearby residents and all the drivers ahead of me who would be stuck in traffic for hours, inhaling the soot and toxic fumes resulting from the burning of construction materials that consisted of plastic wiring. While some sources report the plastic as high-density polyethylene (HDPE), others have reported it to be polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Fires involving HDPEs are rare, but fires involving PVCs are not that uncommon. In fact, there have been 4 warehouse fires involving PVC materials reported in the past 6 months. Both of these plastic chemicals are quite common; HDPEs are safer and found in plastic milk jugs, detergent, and butter containers, and is my preferred plastic choice for bottled water. There’s been a lot of pressure to ban PVCs in children’s toys and medical devices such as catheters, feeding tubes and IVs due to growing concerns about its toxicity.

Why should local residents, city and state officials be concerned about health and environmental concerns?

As a pediatrician and recognized expert in environmental health, I’ve been advocating for stronger health protections in our federal and state chemical laws for years. While short-term effects are less worrisome, small amounts of these plastic chemicals can be inhaled, ingested or leach into the body through other routes of exposure. PVCs can lead to cancer, harm to the immune and reproductive systems and contribute to learning problems in children.

While HDPEs are safer, they can also affect the reproductive system. The burning of these plastics can release free radicals, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and also lead, zinc and other heavy metals and give rise to additional health concerns. The soot, or particulate matter, from the fire can impair visibility and exacerbate heart and lung disease. The increase in carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels are also worrisome.

The very young and those with pre-existing health conditions are most vulnerable to exposures from toxins. Local residents and drivers, first responders including firefighters, police, construction workers, and news anchors are also at risk, especially for eye, nose and throat irritation, difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, dizziness, coughing and chest pains. Firefighters should take precautions if they develop signs of heat exhaustion. Those with asthma or COPD should prophylactically take their inhaled medication to reduce their risk of wheezing and difficulty breathing.

The following recommendations can help keep residents safe and healthy during this public health emergency: If you are driving pay attention to electronic highway message boards, roll-up windows, prepare for detours, practice defensive driving, and know the HERO number 511.

If you are home during an air pollution or fire disaster, stay inside with windows/doors closed, keep your home’s HVAC system in good maintenance, check fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors monthly to ensure proper working condition, and monitor the emergency situation via your TV, radio or online news, and be prepared to leave if directed by emergency personnel.

Visit your doctor if you develop symptoms that persist, and contact the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222, if necessary.

Nothing is more important than you and your family’s health and safety.

Most of all, remain calm and once the disaster has passed, prepare for the next one by visiting the FEMA website: https://community.fema.gov.

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