Are Marcus Hook, PA Lung Ailments Linked to Oil Refinery Emissions?

Some residents of Marcus Hook, PA have reported symptoms of serious lung illnesses that they believe may be associated with toxic emissions released from local refineries. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) assessed one of those refineries, operated by Sunoco, $173,000 in civil penalties for several instances of illegal air emissions. Other oil refineries in the Marcus Hook area include ConocoPhillips.

Apparently, some residents of the Delaware county, PA community have reported symptoms such as chronic coughing, headaches and fatigue. These symptoms are often associated with a serious lung ailment called <"">sarcoidosis.

Sarcoidosis is a disease that results from inflammation of tissues of the body. It can appear in almost any body organ, but most often starts in the lungs or lymph nodes. The disease can appear suddenly and disappear, or it can develop little by little and go on to produce symptoms that come and go, sometimes for a lifetime. As sarcoidosis progresses, small lumps, or granulomas, appear in the affected tissues. In the majority of cases, these granulomas clear up, either with or without treatment. In the few cases where the granulomas do not heal and disappear, the tissues tend to remain inflamed and become scarred (fibrotic).

Shortness of breath (dyspnea), chest pain, and a cough that won’t go away can be among the first symptoms of sarcoidosis. But sarcoidosis can also show up suddenly with the appearance of skin rashes. Red bumps (erythema nodosum) on the face, arms, or shins, and inflammation of the eyes are also common symptoms. It is not unusual, however, for sarcoidosis symptoms to be more general. Weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, fever, or just an overall feeling of ill health can also be clues to the disease.

Though the exact cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, it is believed to be caused through an alteration in the immune response after exposure to an environmental, occupational, or infectious agent.

The fines just assessed by the Pennsylvania DEP came after Sunoco reported several air-emission releases in 2008 to the agency. Those incidents occurred as follows:

• In May 2008, according to DEP, a boiler malfunction released 8.3 tons of carbon monoxide.
• In June 2008, two incidents resulted in 18.1 tons of volatile organic compounds being released into the air, as well as 1,300 gallons of oil.
• In December 2008, another 3.93 tons of nitrogen oxide and 8.09 tons of volatile organic compounds were released into the atmosphere after a compressor shutdown.

DEP inspectors also found numerous air permit and storage tank violations during that time period. Violations that occurred in June, September and November 2008 allegedly involved seal problems and an unreported oil leak. Sunoco was cited for not performing various inspections of instruments, tank hatches and ventilation systems.

In December, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Sunoco’s Marcus Hook facility for workplace safety and health violations, following the ethylene complex explosion in May that required a 10-hour firefighting effort and saw the closure of the complex.

The company was fined $25,000 for a repeat violation involving written maintenance procedures in conjunction with the fire and $7,000 for two serious violations for deficiencies in the company’s hazard analysis process.

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