Editorial Feature

Hurricane Harvey Chemical Spills and the Potentially Deadly Health Effects

The catastrophic effects of the recent Category 4 storm, Hurricane Harvey, which has devastated most of southeastern Texas in the United States, have only begun to surface. With an estimated $190 billion in damage costs, a number that continues to rise, Hurricane Harvey has been the most expensive natural disaster to take place in U.S. history.

With a current death toll of 40, the impact of Hurricane Harvey on housing, jobs, gasoline and the economy are unimaginable1. Aside from these immediate and expected effects, Tropical Storm Harvey has also been associated with causing the leakage of chemicals as a result of damage caused to several plants in the area. The potential threat of these chemicals to both human and environmental health is of urgent concern, as both the acute and long term effects of exposure to such harmful chemicals can be deadly.

A city that is often referred to as the “Energy Capital of the World,” Houston has been the home to 90 thriving petroleum manufacturing and petrochemical businesses2. The relatively low cost of living in Houston, combined with the close access to a well-known port, has led this city to be a leading natural gas exporter.

Some of the most well known plants that are housed in Houston include ExxonMobil refineries, Arkema’s Chemical Plant in Crosby, Chevron Phillips Chemical Plant in Sweeny and Chevron Chemical Plant in Cedar Bayou3.

As the second largest oil refinery located in Baytown, Texas, and a second located in Beaumont, these ExxonMobil refineries suffered a great deal of damage, as the tremendous amount of rain and extremely high winds damaged important protective equipment at these locations.

At the Beaumont location, a piece of equipment that is responsible for capturing and burning sulfur dioxide (SO2) has collapsed, causing the release of over 1,300 pounds of SO2 . Some long term effects associated with exposure to SO2 include an increased risk of respiratory illnesses, as well as reproductive or developmental effects4.

In fact, the Chevron Phillips chemical plant was found to release over 100,000 pounds of carbon monoxide (CO), 22,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide (NO), 32,000 pounds of ethylene and 11,000 pounds of propane. Each of the chemicals released by Chevron Phillips are toxic, especially when immediately exposed to humans and the environment. For example, exposure to both low and high levels of CO can cause a number of severe effects that range from dizziness, headache and nausea to death if the gas is present in high concentrations.

One of the most frightening chemical spills that might have occurred as a result of Harvey’s heavy flooding is that of the numerous Superfund sites located in Harris County. Superfund sites are contaminated areas that are contained by the government to be cleaned and inspected before reopening. The aftermath of Harvey, which has unloaded approximately 24.5 trillion gallons of water into the affected areas, could carry the pollutants from these sites to surrounding areas, potentially affecting human health through drinking and well water contamination.

Attention was originally brought to the chemical spills in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, following a number of complaints that locals made on the development of smells in the area, as well as accompanying sore throats, headaches and other symptoms. While it is not possible to fully determine that these smells are in fact a result of the various sources of chemical spills that have happened following this storm, the reality of this situation to induce a great deal of damage to the city of Houston, particularly the health of its people, cannot be ignored.

In addition to protecting the people of this area by providing them additional shelter, food and clothing options, government officials must heavily investigate these spills and their ability to negatively affect both human and environmental health.

Image Credit:

Sasa Kadrijevic/ Shutterstock.com


  1. “Charting Hurricane Harvey’s jaw-dropping size and destruction” – USA Today
  2. “Houston’s Manufacturing and Petrochemical Industries Thriving, Thanks to Shale” – Energy In Depth Texas
  3. “Harvey’s flooding is triggering chemical spills, which could cause other environmental disasters” – The Verge
    “Public Health Statement for Sulfur Dioxide” – Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.


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