Berniard Law Firm Files Suit for Chalmette Refinery Catalyst Release in Ninth Ward, Other Communities

The Berniard Law Firm is look to tackle a negligent refinery by representing a Chalmette resident assaulted by chemicals released from a St. Bernard Parish oil refinery. While taking a walk through her neighborhood on the morning of September 6, 2009, the woman observed white dust covering homes and vehicles. She experienced exposure symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throat, headache, and burning sensations in her nose and eyes. As the symptoms persisted, she went to a hospital the following day. The white powder comprised a spent catalyst including components of kaolin and titanium dioxide which are eye, skin and lung irritants. Portions of Chalmette, Arabi, and New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward were blanketed with the fine white powder.

In addition to releasing a ton of spent catalyst, the refinery released two thousand pounds of sulfur dioxide, one thousand pounds of nitrogen oxide, and an unspecified amount of hydrogen sulfide. Not only was the refinery negligent in releasing the toxic chemicals but also for failing to notify area residents of the accident in a timely manner so that they could take precautionary measures. Moreover, children and pets are more susceptible to exposure symptoms due to their smaller size while residents with certain pre-existing medical conditions would also suffer greater harm than a healthy adult. For example, children have a greater lung surface area to body weight ratio along with other parameters that differ from adults leading to greater susceptibility to chemical inhalation effects at lower concentrations. Likewise, pre-existing medical conditions including chronic pulmonary disease and asthma increase susceptibility to exposure symptoms at lower concentrations.

Specifically, sulfur dioxide may induce acute exposure symptoms comprising irritation in the upper respiratory tract, nosebleeds and rhinorrhea (runny nose), coughing and choking, expectoration (coughing up phlegm), dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and oropharyngeal erythema (redness). Although predominately affecting the upper respiratory tract via inhalation, sulfur dioxide also acts as an intense eye and skin irritant by combining with water producing sulfuric acid and sulfurous acid. Dermal exposure symptoms range from irritation to urticarea (itchiness) and burns. Given this high solubility, sulfur dioxide is also rapidly distributed throughout the body producing metabolic acidosis possibly inducing vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, vertigo (dizziness), and agitation. Decontamination should include removal of contaminated clothing and rinsing of the skin and eyes. Reproductive and teratogenic effects (malformation of embryo, fetus) of exposure are unknown, which has raised concerns among women at varying stages of pregnancy at the time this accident occurred.

Hydrogen sulfide is an extremely fast acting chemical with high toxicity. Low level exposure symptoms include eye, nose, and throat irritation while moderate level exposure can lead to headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Notably, hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air resulting in accumulation in enclosed and low-lying areas. Consequently, exposure in children and pets is greater than in adults due to their shorter stature and smaller airways. Even at low levels, hydrogen sulfide inhalation may induce exposure symptoms of headache, dizziness, and upset stomach. Reproductive and teratogenic effects are unknown.

Low levels nitrogen oxide exposure symptoms include eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation as well as shortness of breath, tiredness, nausea, and lung fluid build up for one to two days. Of particular concern are reproductive animal studies revealing toxic effects on developing fetuses and alterations in genetic material. This is especially important for women who were pregnant at the time of exposure.

The involuntary chemical exposure suffered by area residents was exacerbated by the refinery’s failure to notify thus depriving them of the opportunity to keep themselves and their children indoors or arrange to leave the contaminated area. None of the chemicals are as innocuous as area residents were led to believe, and no data is available to predict adverse consequences of the combined chemical exposure. For more information, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.