Elevated levels of benzene found near Richmond metal shop fire Tuesday

RICHMOND (BCN) Air samples taken during a fire Tuesday at a metal shop in Richmond showed higher than the recommended level of a carcinogen but lower than what a person experiences during daily activities, Contra Costa County officials said today.

The fire started at about 5 p.m. at Sims Metal Management at 600 S. Fourth St. and prompted a shelter-in-place order for some residents in the area.

The level of the carcinogen benzene across the street from where the fire as the fire was burning Tuesday evening was 318 parts per billion compared with the recommended exposure level of eight to 12 parts per billion, Randy Sawyer, chief environmental health and hazardous materials 
officer for Contra Costa County, said.

But Dr. David Goldstein, Contra Costa Health Services Deputy Health Officer, said pumping gas exposes a person to more than one part per million, which is higher than the level measured across from the fire.

"The real concern would be long-term exposure," Goldstein said, adding that this event does not meet the threshold for long-term exposure.

Still he said it's difficult to say whether there would be no impacts. Goldstein said the best thing to do when smoke is present is to limit exposure as much as possible.

Existing community monitors in the area also measured air quality during the fire. A monitor in Point Richmond recorded benzene levels of 23 parts per billion, also higher than recommended exposure level.

The level of benzene at all other monitors was below the recommended exposure level, county health officials said.

By 4 a.m. Wednesday, benzene levels in the area around the fire were back to normal, Sawyer said.

Of the other chemicals and particulate matter sampled, the levels were not elevated.

Goldstein said people with respiratory conditions such as asthma may have experienced some symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath.

Anyone who has concerns about their health since the fire are encouraged to get in touch with their doctor, Goldstein said.