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Ford Plant Benzene Leak Leads To Evacuations Near Detroit

Days after a benzene leak at the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant near Detroit, Michigan, health officials still have a state of emergency in place for the area, recommending nearby residents evacuate their homes due to elevated levels of known cancer-causing vapors.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Wayne County Health Department (WCHD) originally issued the voluntary evacuation order to local residents on September 4, after Ford revealed an underground pipe carrying gasoline used to fuel vehicles built at the plant spilled approximately 3,000 gallons of fuel into the municipal sanitary system.

Local officials warn the fuel leak poses serious health risks to local residents, who face risks both from inhaling benzene and potential explosions from vapors seeping into homes, businesses and a nearby school from the sewer lines. Prolonged exposure to elevated levels of benzene vapor not only pose an explosion risk, but have long been declared a carcinogen and are known to increase the risk of several fatal forms of leukemia and cancers.

According to HAZMAT crews and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taking air quality measurements in the surrounding areas, the air inside of buildings and sewer lines have levels of benzene which exceed federal guidelines, and may reach explosive levels.

In the MDHHS press release, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at the agency warned that residents may not be able to see or smell the vapors, and urged all residents in the surrounding areas to take swift action and evacuate their homes until further notice.

Currently, MDHHS recommends residents of the Flat Rock area bounded by I-75 to the east, Gibraltar Road to the north, Cahill Road to the west and Woodruff Road to the south, evacuate their homes until officials can determine when it is safe to return. It has been several days since the evacuation order was given,

A second geographical area being investigated was outlined in the press release, ordering residents bounded by Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron River Drive to the south, and Tamarack Road to the East, as well as buildings along Woodruff between East Huron River Drive and Cahill Road to also evacuate their homes if they have any concerns or suspect a vapor presence.

The overall number of homes evacuated due to the Ford plant benzene leak has been small, but residents nearby have complained of a lack of transparency surrounding who should leave and who should stay.

Residents in the surrounding areas who have not been evacuated are being instructed to be mindful of symptoms of benzene vapor exposure,  which can include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heart beat

While local officials launched response teams Sunday to begin going door-to-door in the impacted zones, Ford announced it has initially set up a million dollar reimbursement fund for evacuated and displaced families in Flat Rock, offering free hotel rooms with gift cards for displaced residents until officials deem it is safe for them to return home.

Those experiencing a chemical-like odor in their home are being urged to contact the Flat Rock Fire Department at 734-782-2496 and dial 0 immediately. Residents needing to evacuate and relocate are being instructed to call the city’s hotline at 734-782-2455 and dial 6.

Benzene Health Risks

Benzene is an industrial chemical used in gasoline that has been associated with the development of several fatal forms of cancer, leukemia and other conditions, such as AML, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.

Long-term side effects of benzene exposure have been proven to cause anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. Essentially, the chemical causes bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can damage an individual’s immune system. DHHS has determined long-term exposure to benzene can significantly impact blood cells, to the extent it causes cancer such as leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming organs.

Benzene is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature and has a sweet odor that is highly flammable. It evaporates into the air very quickly and its vapor is heavier than air, causing it to sink into low-lying areas.

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