Residents living near a burning chemical plant in suburban Rockton are being asked to wear masks to protect themselves from airborne particulates, and are being asked not to pick up pieces of debris from the fire.
Dr. Sandra Martell, administrator of the Winnebago County Health Department, says that residents within three miles of the Chemtool lubricant manufacturing facility should wear masks to protect themselves from particulates thrown into the air by the fire, which is still burning.
“I know we recently came out of the mitigations for COVID-19, but our masks are going to help protect us as well during all this,” she said.
Officials say that monitors are being installed around the area to measure air quality.
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“We’re concerned about any particulate matter at this point. Any of them can become a pulmonary irritant,” Martell said. “So what we’re talking about here is compromising your immune system. People with asthma and people with underlying respiratory conditions must be extremely cautious.”
Residents are also being asked not to pick up any debris that may have dropped from the sky after becoming airborne during the fire.
“Please do not pick up the waste that falls from the sky,” she said. “We do not know what that waste contains. Please don’t handle it with bare hands. Use a shovel, use gloves, and sequester it and keep it separate from your household waste, so that we know how to properly dispose of it.”
Kirk Wilson, chief of the Rockton Fire Protection District, says that there is some concern about airborne smoke descending to ground level as temperatures cool on Monday.
“Tonight there are some concerns about the weather and a (potential) drop of the smoke plume, so we’re going to continue to monitor that,” Wilson said.
John Kim, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, elaborated on those weather concerns.
“So the meteorological conditions (we’re concerned with) would primarily be the wind and temperature,” he said. “So, what we talked about is when you have cooler temperatures that we're going to get at night. That's going to bring some of that down through what we call a temperature inversion, and that's why you may have a situation where at nighttime depending upon how cool it gets there may need to be some additional measures put into place, for example, possibly shelter in place that kind of thing.”
Kim says that at least 17 air quality monitors will be installed around the area to determine whether further mitigation actions will be required.
Residents within one mile of the plant have been asked to evacuate, and it is unclear when they will be allowed to return to their homes.
Firefighters have been unable to put more water on the fire, with officials expressing concerns about chemical runoff impacting drinking water supplies and the nearby Rock River, which sits just 500 yards from the plant.