Volkskrant: Fire at Chemie-Pack – the lessons that were not learnt

Five days after the fire at Chemie-Pack, Lucas Reijnders (64), professor of environmental science at the University of Amsterdam, concludes that the authorities in charge in Moerdijk failed to learn any lessons from the fire at chemical company ATF in Drachten in 2000, he tells the Volkskrant.

‘The fire brigade did a professional job at Chemie-Pack but it is an unforgiveable oversight that firemen and policemen were working without protective masks. That is the first thing they should have thought of,’ he says.
Reijnders also criticises the lack of special emergency measures for the area, which in the light of the nature and position of the fire should have been in place immediately. He cannot understand why it took mayor Wim Denie of Moerdijk all of two days to decide to impose the measures.
‘The crisis team’s communication is dire. People’s health is not in danger, they say and yet the sprouts in the field underneath the cloud mustn’t be eaten. Those are contradictory statements,’ he said.
‘The lesson that should have been learnt from the Drachten fire is that what people living in the immediate vicinity of the company need are practical tips.’
The soot has spread as far as Delfzijl. How dangerous do you think it is?
‘Soot is always dangerous. It is a major cause of lung cancer. A cloud of soot means incomplete combustion. If there is soot, there is a danger to public health.
‘The mayor of Dordrecht did well to issue preventive measures in his area aimed at the protection of children and pets. Children are especially at risk in case of soot because they tend to put their fingers in their mouths.’
Emergency workers have complained about irritated airways. What has caused these?
‘They have been exposed to volatile organic compounds. By inhaling compounds like aldehyde and formaldehyde people can become oversensitive to them. That happened in Drachten too.
‘When confronted with similar emissions their condition will get worse, for instance if they open a bottle of formaldehyde or when working with chipboard. In the long term these allergies can go on to cause asthma and frequent infections of the airways.
‘People who have these complaints because of the fire at Chemie-Pack should definitely be monitored. Those with recurring ailments should see their GP as soon possible. If dealt with adequately the damage may be limited.’
Did you notice anything unusual about the Chemie-Pack inventory list given out by the public prosecution office?
‘There was a lot of antimony and nickel stored at Chemie-Pack. I have yet to hear a comment on that. Antimony is especially dangerous when breathed in. It can be carcinogenic but also affects the immune system. Nickel can turn into nickel carbonyl which is a potent carcinogenic.’
‘There were quite a number of compounds which could lead to the formation of chloride dioxins. The soot should be measured for that. The formation of dioxins during the fire may have been very uneven.’
How dangerous are the chemical emissions from the polluted extinguishing water?
Benzene can cause leukaemia. Tetracloroethylene is thought to have carcinogenic properties. All solvents found in the extinguishing water can have an effect on the central nervous system.
What are the symptoms?
‘Headaches and dizziness. Inhaling large concentrations cause muscle cramps and tachycardia. The amount of evaporation is not very high just now because of the cold. But temperatures are rising next week and there will be more evaporation, not just from the water but from the soil as well.’
Can people who have no health problems as a result of inhaling these harmful compounds rest assured?
‘A single exposure to solvents is unlikely to do damage in the long term. But as we have seen in house painters, long term exposure to solvents can have lasting effects on the central nervous system.’
This is an unofficial translation

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