Chemical Fire Investigation Highlights Need for Manufacturers to Inform Local Officials of Toxic Risks: CDC

Many residents said they were not provided adequate or understandable information about the risks of chemical exposure from the fire

Following an investigation into a Rockton, Illinois chemical fire in 2021, which led to a county-wide emergency proclamation, federal health officials indicate manufacturers should be required to provide the community and officials with more information about potential risks from toxic chemical exposures in the event of disasters.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published findings last week in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, indicating area residents experienced persistent mental and physical health symptoms for at least a year after the industrial fire at the Chemtool manufacturing facility in Winnebago County, highlighting the need for clear and accessible information to help authorities gauge the long-term health concerns and protect affected communities.

On June 14, 2021, the Chemtool industrial manufacturing facility in Winnebago country caught fire and released a significant amount of smoke, dust, and debris, as well as potentially toxic particulate matter. The ensuing fallout of particulate matter in the air forced Winnebago County to issue an emergency proclamation.

The Illinois Department of Public Health and Winnebago County Health Department requested help from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to conduct a community Assessment of Chemical Exposure (ACE) following the fire.

Chemical Fire Health Effects

Half of the residents in Winnebago Country reported symptoms during the two weeks following the fire.

A follow-up ACE investigation was conducted, and a survey was sent to more than 2,000 residents from the original 2021 chemical fire survey. The survey focused on questions about health, mental health, and community needs.

The findings of the new report indicate that one year after the fire nearly 60% of residents reported new or worsening physical health symptoms and 40% of residents reported experiencing new or worsening mental health symptoms since the fire.

Of the residents reporting physical health symptoms, more than 90% said they were still experiencing the symptoms one year after the fire. Of those reporting mental health symptoms, 98% were still experiencing the symptoms one year after the fire.

Residents indicated they avoid engaging in previous activities like gardening, because of concerns about fire-related contaminants.

Residents reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and overall poor mental health. They also expressed disappointment in communication from public health officials about the disaster and its potential consequences.

Lack of Information About Chemical Fire Exposures

The findings of the study indicate residents were not able to easily access information about environmental exposures or fire site cleanup efforts. When they were given information, residents said it was overly technical and difficult to understand.

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Officials indicated a further analysis of the effects after the fire is underway, but the initial findings indicate residents did not receive adequate or effective communication. They found it difficult to access information and were often confused.

The study points to a need for improved communication regarding public information from manufacturers and clear information regarding potential health effects. Moreover, manufacturers should provide information regarding the chemicals used in the processes in their facilities.

“Communities that have experienced a similar type of fire or environmental disaster would benefit from a consolidated source of information, summarized in easily understandable, plain language,” wrote CDC officials.


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