Potential dioxin emissions from Rouen chemical plant fire raises concerns

It is “possible” that a major industrial fire in Rouen last week produced dioxin emissions, the head of a French environmental agency said Wednesday. Amid pollution fears after the Lubrizol blaze, there are calls for more testing to be made public.

HO/SDIS/AFP | This handout video grab taken from footage released by SDIS, the departmental fire and rescue service, on September 27, 2019, shows an aerial view of firefighters at the scene of a blaze at a Lubrizol factory in Rouen, France.

A week after the massive fire at the Lubrizol chemical plant in Normandy, the massive plume of smoke that spiralled into the air last Thursday is causing intense concern among area residents .

The plant, which makes industrial lubricants and fuel additives and is owned by the American billionaire Warren Buffet, is located just kilometres from the city of Rouen, population 110,000. But smoke from the blaze cut a broad black swath across the sky, spreading some 22 kilometres beyond the site. More than 1,800 farmers saw their fields tainted by an oily soot from the fire. Authorities have told them to destroy any exposed produce. The government has pledged to compensate their losses promptly.

On Wednesday, Raymond Cointe, who heads the National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks (Ineris) charged with analysing samples collected in the wake of the inferno, announced that “it is possible that the fire led to the emission of dioxins”, while adding that current analyses “suggest that most of” the plant’s products have a “low likelihood of releasing dioxins”.

“Further results are necessary in order to elaborate on and confirm this data, keeping in mind that as far as dioxins are concerned, the principal and potential source of contamination is from ingestion,” Cointe said.

People wear masks following an accident at the Seveso classified Lubrizol factory, in front of the cathedral of Rouen, northern France, on September 26, 2019.
People wear masks following an accident at the Seveso classified Lubrizol factory, in front of the cathedral of Rouen, northern France, on September 26, 2019. Lou Benoist, AFP

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was prudent earlier Wednesday, declaring before the Senate: “We don’t know everything right now because the tests are ongoing and because they will need to continue and be pursued for a long time.”

Chemist and legal expert Frédéric Poitou told FRANCE 24 that, after Cointe’s remarks on dioxins, “the floodgates are open”. “He is someone who is very competent and who is considered an authority in the profession saying this,” Poitou explained. “I hope it will spur our politicians to adopt a stance.”

Former environment minister Corinne Lepage struck a similar note. Lepage has for days been warning of the risks of dioxin emissions from the Lubrizol fire. “What the State is saying wasn’t biased. It was accurate, but it was incomplete,” she told FRANCE 24. “The dioxin emissions result has seemed evident to me from the start.”

Have authorities known of dioxin emissions since the night of the explosion?

Dioxins are chemical compounds that linger in the environment and enter the food chain, principally in meat, dairy products, fish and seafood, according to the World Health Organisation. The WHO underscores that some of these pollutants are potentially carcinogenic.

“There are about 200 existing dioxins – including 10 that are very toxic and two that are deadly – but not all of them are dangerous,” Poitou explained. As for knowing which dioxins were “possibly” emitted in Rouen, the chemist says he doesn’t know which of the compounds were stored at the Lubrizol site. “We will know soon. Private analyses are under way,” he said.

>> Read more: ‘We want the truth!’ Fear and suspicion in Rouen after chemical plant blaze

Poitou believes the possible release of dioxins has been known to authorities “since the night of the explosion thanks to a CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] truck” put to use in Rouen to detect such emissions.

Lepage shares that reasoning. She is calling for CBRN trucks’ analyses “to be made public”. “There were several on site to my knowledge,” she says. “They are extremely sophisticated trucks inside which analyses, notably of dioxins, take only a few hours.” Lepage adds, “The problem isn’t the quality of the air today; everything that went up in smoke a week ago has settled on the ground and in the water. Dioxins need to be looked for in [local] milk and eggs.”

Contacted by FRANCE 24 for comment on Cointe’s dioxin remarks and on the presence of CBRN trucks on site at Lubrizol on the night of the fire, the Seine-Maritime department’s police prefecture had yet to respond at the time of writing.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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