Chemical plant fire, smoke plume in Rockton fuels air quality concerns

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ROCKTON, Ill. — Fire continues to rage from a Rockton-area chemical plant, spewing heavy black smoke into the air. While the impact on the environment is not yet clear, many have raised concerns about air quality. 

In response to the massive blaze, officials evacuated a one-mile radius of the fire and asked people within three miles of the fire to wear face masks to protect themselves from dangerous chemicals that may be in the air.   

“Ground level is OK,” said Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson. “What we are concerned with is particulates that may be in the air.”

But Northwestern pulmonologist Dr. Marc Sala says the lubricants manufactured in the plant most likely contain hydrocarbons. Sala says the burning of hydrocarbons can form many other compounds and chemicals that might pose a risk, especially for people with medical issues. 

Massive fire at chemical plant prompts evacuations in Rockton; No injuries reported

“I think people in general with heart and lung conditions such as a coronary disease or COPD or asthma are certainly at most at risk for developing acute complications from having inhaled something in this area,” Sala said. “Those individuals might notice symptoms, such as palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing. Those are the common symptoms.”

Dr. Sala points out that healthy people are less at risk for complications. He says the longer a person is exposed to the polluted air, the greater the chance for complications.

In the interim, air quality monitoring stations are set up throughout the Rockton area, officials say, to keep track of any other dangerous carcinogens. 

“There are a number of chemicals [inside the plant],” said Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) director Alicia Tate-Nadeau. “Lead..basically what is antifreeze, nitrogen, sulfuric acid and a few others.”

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