LACKAWANNA, N.Y. -- Two weeks after a massive fire at the former Bethlehem Steel facility, people in Lackawanna are understandably concerned about their health.
Nearly 300 homes in Bethlehem Park were forced to evacuate because of the heavy smoke and plume, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation tests would later reveal the air was indeed "hazardous" at the height of the fire in some locations. At least one chemical, benzene, was roughly 180 times the baseline levels at one spot in Bethlehem Park, according to DEC tests released last week.
So this Monday evening, more than 100 people -- some residents of Bethlehem Park, and others residents from nearby communities -- had a chance to sit face-to-face with the State Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation at the Lackawanna Senior Center.
Experts from those departments fielded very serious questions from Lackawanna residents:
Is there a risk of cancer? What's the impact on children or the elderly? How do we clean up our homes?
Dr. Gregory Young, the associate commissioner of the Western Region for the State Department of Health, made it clear for the audience that short-term health risks are much different than long-term risks. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the hazardous air quality could have caused serious irritation, particularly to the eyes, nose or ears. That's what forced the evacuations and shelter-in-place orders initially.
Young acknowledged that the strong smell may even still be causing problems for people in Bethlehem Park. While he urged them to see their primary care physician if they are experiencing any issues, he was careful to point out that these are only "acute" symptoms-- not chronic.
"It's that constant repeat exposure that leads to chronic health issues," Young said, drawing an analogy to people who smoke cigarettes for many years and inhale dangerous toxins. "And acute exposure of a few days, or even maybe a few weeks, isn't going to do that."
Addressing questions about cancer risks, Young said there's no data to suggest people in Lackawanna will need to worry about such issues.
"I tried to alleviate some of those fears. That, based on one industrial fire, you're not going to see a spike in cancer," Young said. "That's not going to happen."
Still, people in Bethlehem Park are dealing with a major headache in the aftermath of this fire. Many people still have soot to remove from their homes.
The State Department of Health suggests people use soap and water to clean the soot. They should also have their carpets professionally cleaned, or at least run through the dry cleaners.
Although the smell of smoke remains in some homes, Dr. Young said that's not a cause of concern.
"Our sense of smell will detect particles far below a level that would create a health risk," Young said, "the fact that they can smell it doesn't mean they're still at risk."