Originally created 07/04/05

Some say gas still causing problems



GRANITEVILLE - Dana Yonce says she isn't enjoying her backyard garden this year as she has in the past. Her skin breaks out when she goes outside, a condition that has worsened as temperatures climb higher.

"It looks like smallpox," she said from her Powell Street home, only blocks away from where two trains collided in January and an estimated 60 tons of chlorine gas was released.

The Graniteville resident said she has never experienced such breakouts when exposed to the heat. But given her allergy to Clorox and her house's proximity to the crash site, she speculates that her rashes could be linked to the toxic chemical.

Health officials and chlorine experts say that isn't likely.

"Chlorine is a gas, and that gas is long gone from Graniteville," said Dr. Brooks Metts, the director of the Palmetto Poison Center at the University of South Carolina.

Still, six months after the crash, residents across the town report a lingering odor that has an almost sweet fragrance, unlike some of the smells that spew from the Avondale Mills textile plants at the center of town.

Officials are reluctant to attribute the lingering odor to chlorine. Even before the thousands of people who were evacuated from the town for more than a week returned, air-quality tests and samples from nearby streams showed no sign of the gas.

When chlorine mixes with water, it typically dissipates to almost undetectable levels. However, when extraordinary levels of the gas mix with water, an acidic byproduct is left behind, said Rick Caldwell, the district director for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Officials say they've found trace amounts of chlorine in the soil, but well below harmful levels and so low it can't be smelled.

Across Graniteville, there is rampant speculation that heat will pull reservoirs of underground chlorine to the surface.

"It's unlikely that would happen, but we want to be sure," Scott Reynolds, the director of DHEC's division of air quality analysis, told residents at Leavelle McCampell Middle School on Thursday.

The agency plans to conduct additional air and soil samples this summer near the crash site and at locations around town where lingering odors have been reported.

It's a sad fact for residents of Graniteville, but the place they call home has become a scientific guinea pig of sorts.

Their fears have been heightened daily as buses pull up to Avondale Mills around the clock and unload people who walk into large plastic tents and walk out in protective clothing.

The company has done little to assuage the fears of people such as Mrs. Yonce, who watch and wonder why the cleaning crews must wear protective clothing when they enter the company's plants.

The Gregg, Hickman, Stevens Steam and Woodhead plants were all badly damaged by chlorine gas and the leftover chloride salts that have corroded its expensive manufacturing equipment, said Stephen Felker Jr., a company spokesman.

The cleaning crews have worn protective suits and air masks to guard against lint inhalation and the corrosive salts, he said.

"There is no health risk there" from chlorine, he added.

The company, which for many years was the sole economic engine for the town, has yet to return to full capacity. Many of the machines it fixes continue to corrode, even after they're cleaned, Mr. Felker said.

"We've done what we can with duct tape and chewing gum to keep things going," he added.

Six of the nine people who succumbed to the yellow-tinged chlorine gas during the early morning hours of Jan. 6 worked at Avondale Mills, three of them at Woodhead. Willie Lee Tyler's body was found 25 feet from the plant entrance. Charles Shealey and John Laird died as they ran into the woods, about 100 yards from where Steve and Drenda Proctor live with their two sons, Daniel, 13, and Mathew, 12.

Their home lies in a low valley near the accident site and was engulfed in chlorine on the morning of the accident, the family said. They closed their doors and windows and used towels to block cracks, but the gas still seeped into the home, they said.

White blisters formed on the inside of Mr. Proctor's mouth. They have since gone away, but Daniel and Mathew take prescription antacids because of burning in their throats and esophagi, Mrs. Proctor said.

Mathew has lost patches of hair, which the family believes is the result of chlorine exposure, though a physician attributed the loss to a fungus.

"It's all of us that have been affected," Mrs. Proctor said. "It's not a family here or there."

Like the environment, the people of Graniteville have become living science experiments.

Although short-term affects of chlorine exposure are well documented, its long-term effects on the human mind and body are less known. DHEC is tracking a group of 280 people who were exposed to chlorine gas on the morning of the accident, almost all of whom sought medical attention at a hospital.

The coughing, eye and nose irritation, and vomiting that were reported immediately after the accident have turned into forms of asthma for some victims, DHEC officials report.

Others have suffered structural lung damage and constant eye irritation, while still others report rashes similar to Mrs. Yonce's.

Robert Wayne Williams, who lives on Hard Street, near the crash site, has suffered from skin irritations since he was exposed to the chlorine.

"Everywhere I wore clothes, I've got a rash," he told DHEC officials.

Other townspeople report skin problems that come and go, predictable signs of exposure that should fade with time, officials said.

One of the big unknowns is chlorine's effect on the nervous system. Organizers of the DHEC study say they anticipate reports of short- and long-term memory loss and irritability.

After fanning out to hospital emergency rooms in the days after the crash and collecting reports of physician visits, the agency counted 599 people who sought medical attention.

"We know that's not the whole number," said Mary Anne Wenck, an epidemic intelligence service officer with DHEC. "599 is a low number."

The agency plans to mail letters announcing health screenings to every residence that was evacuated - an estimated 5,400 people. Residents also are likely to be asked questions relating to the disaster and life since.

Some residents have moved away, but most stayed. There was actually a drop in the number of homes listed for sale between Jan. 6 and June 15 this year and last, from 38 in 2004 to 35 in 2005, according to Aiken Board of Realtors statistics, which don't include homes sold by owners.

And, contrary to much speculation, the average selling price during that time frame went up, from $86,885 in 2004 to $91,275 this year.

It's an arbitrary number that provides little or no solace for the Proctors and other families. While medical experts search for ways to explain their declining quality of life, the family is left with little choice but to carry on toward an uncertain future.

"We're in a holding pattern," Mr. Proctor said. "Nobody knows."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

Health Help

Officials with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control plan to provide free health screenings for residents in the Graniteville area, probably in August. The agency said it will post fliers around town to announce the screenings and will mail notices to residents who were evacuated because of the disaster.

 • Visit the Graniteville Train Wreck Special Section