January 26, 2023

Report: One Year After Illinois Chemical Fire, Community Concerns Persist

Residents affected by a 2021 industrial fire in Winnebago County, Illinois, report a lack of clear communication as well as mental and physical health symptoms persisting a year after the incident, according to CDC’s Jan. 20 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The MMWR summarizes the findings of an Assessment of Chemical Exposure (ACE) investigation conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.

A statement published on June 15, 2021, by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reports that the fire had started the previous day at a plant in Rockton that manufactured petroleum-based lubricants. All 70 workers were evacuated. In subsequent updates released on June 21 and June 22, CSB states that no serious injuries were reported and that emergency responders mitigated the potential for an environmental release.

The MMWR provides additional details, explaining that the fire required the area around the plant to be evacuated for four days. After the emergency response, ATSDR conducted an ACE investigation at the request of state and county public health departments. The agency’s initial survey found that almost one half of 2,030 respondents reported experiencing symptoms during the two weeks after the fire. The MMWR does not specify the nature of these residents’ symptoms.

ATSDR conducted a follow-up ACE investigation a year later, emailing a modified survey to all previous survey respondents. Of the 676 respondents who completed the follow-up survey, 39 percent reported they had experienced new or worsening mental health symptoms since the fire. Ninety-eight percent of that group reported the mental health symptoms had persisted for one year. Likewise, of the 59 percent of respondents who reported they had experienced new or worsening physical health symptoms, 90 percent said their symptoms had persisted for one year.

ATSDR also conducted phone interviews of 13 survey respondents and in-person interviews with nine residents of a neighborhood adjacent to the fire site. The MMWR describes these interviews as revealing “themes related to anxiety, disappointment in communication, and overall poor mental health.” Although the MMWR cautions that more formal qualitative analysis is yet to come, preliminary findings suggest that residents had difficulty accessing information about environmental exposures or on-site cleanup efforts and interpreting this information when it was available. Moreover, the interviews allowed residents to freely share remarks. Some reported that concerns about fire-related contaminants led them to avoid previous activities such as gardening.

According to the MMWR, the follow-up ACE investigation highlights the importance of clear and accessible health information, in addition to documenting residents’ continued health symptoms and informing local authorities of previously unrecognized concerns. Officials in Winnebago County are applying the lessons learned from the follow-up survey with respect to both the 2021 chemical fire and other environmental exposures, including to develop clear and transparent communications about chemical exposures.

More information may be found in the complete MMWR.