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 today.
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, as well as asthma attacks, wheezing and difficulty in 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 at about 6:30 p.m. on 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 that it took three hours for the county's 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 that 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.
Sawyer said the county should consider strengthening its industrial safety ordinance to prevent similar problems at refineries in the future.
He said the fire is still being investigated by Chevron and four government agencies: the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Mary Piepho said the board will get another update on the Chevron fire at its meeting next week.