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5 things Flat Rock residents need to know about the chemical spill

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Early last week, a Flat Rock resident reported a gasoline-type odor. First responders quickly started knocking on doors in the middle of the night in the Hickory Ridge subdivision and found other homes with the same odor.

Testing equipment detected benzene, a chemical found in gasoline, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In some homes, the benzene level was high enough that families had to be evacuated.

Benzene is flammable liquid. It’s used in processesing and products including synthetic materials as well as lubricants, dyes, and some detergents. It’s a known carcinogen.

Federal, state, and local officials have been checking the sewer system and found the chemical there. Firefighting foam has been sprayed into the sewers to reduce the chance of fire or explosion.

Eventually, it was determined that a gasoline leak from a storage tank at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant was the source of the spill.

Here are five things residents need to know:

What are the symptoms of benzene exposure?

Breathing in very high levels of benzene can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, feeling weak, a rapid heart rate, or you can feel sleepy. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should see a doctor.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun is Michigan's Chief Medical Executive. She and other officials met informally with Flat Rock residents to answer their questions about the gasoline leak.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. During a news conference Sunday in Flat Rock, she said the department is recommending that people who are at risk of being exposed to six parts per billion or higher levels of benzene in the air evacuate their homes.

In a statement, health officials say measurements of air inside buildings and sewer lines have shown levels of VOCs exceeding health levels or at levels that could be explosive.

What do I do if I think there could be benzene vapors in my home?

If you detect a gasoline odor in your home, you should open the windows to let in fresh air. You should go outside until the house is clear of the odor. You should call the Flat Rock Police Department’s non-emergency number 734-782-2496, option 0 and report the odor.

Where are the areas of concern in Flat Rock?

Two areas of the city are being investigated for benzene levels.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A map of Zone 1 and Zone 2 on a handout with handwritten notes by a Department of Health and Human Services employee.

The Zone 1 area is bounded by I-75 to the east, Gibraltar Road to the north, Cahill Road to the west, and Woodruff Road to the south. This area has had the highest levels of benzene vapors, and some homes have already been evacuated.

Zone 2 is bounded by Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron River Drive to the south, and Cahill Road. There is the potential that the chemicals have traveled through the sewer lines in this area. Again, residents who are concerned might want to evacuate their homes until more information is available.

What are government agencies doing about this?

Responders are going door-to-door with information packets in those two areas. They also want to check on residents and let them know about the hazards of the chemical vapors. Residents will also be told the government will assist with the cost of accommodations if families want to voluntarily evacuate. They’ll also seek permission to have the air in their homes tested by the Environmental Protection Agency to help determine how far the gasoline has traveled in the sewer system.

Who do I contact if I want to evacuate?

Anyone who lives in the two zones can call 2-1-1 for assistance in voluntarily evacuating, information about paying for accommodations for temporary relocation, and leaving contact information to be informed when it’s safe to return home.

Officials warn it might take weeks to complete testing, depending on how fast EPA equipment arrives in Flat Rock.

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) attended Sunday’s news conference in Flat Rock. She said she’s working with the EPA to ensure funding for the testing. She says, though, they can only test 30 to 50 houses a day.

People are rightly worried and confused about the risks of the vapors. As it stands now, the levels in the sewers are not significant enough to be a fire risk, according to Mayor Mark Hammond. He assures families thinking about voluntarily evacuating that the city will keep them informed.

Rep. Dingell said people should keep asking the state officials for information.

“I think that the state’s got to be a very transparent public health department in terms of what’s happening now, how long this is going to take, how they’re going to test for it, and they need to give regular updates on a daily, if not every 12 hour basis to people so that they answer questions.”

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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