Oil depot inferno - what are the health effects?

Last updated at 11:40 12 December 2005

As fire-fighters struggle to contain the inferno at the blazing oil depot near Hemel Hempstead, many are wondering what impact the blaze will have on the health of people in the region.

Assurances that the plumes of smoke engulfing large parts of the south east are not toxic should be taken with a pinch of salt, according to experts.

So what effects could the fire have? Find out here.


  • Asthmatics and the eldery are thought to be particularly at risk. Residents living close to the scene have been warned to close windows and stay indoors.
  • However, anybody inhaling the fumes could be exposed to risk. Professor Warren Lenney, of the British Lung Foundation, said the consequences of inhaling soot particles from the acidic thick black smoke could be "fairly unpleasant". Breathing in the polluted air could cause swelling to the lungs and even affect the brain, he said.
  • Side-effects could include coughing, difficulty breathing and a lack of concentration as oxygen levels drop in the brain.
  • The number of visits to local GPs and drop-in healthcare centres to increase over the coming days.
  • Doctors are being advised by the Poisons and Toxicology Unit in London on how to deal with chemical incidents.
  • The Met Office said light rain could cause another hazard, by turning the cloud into a black rain that could contaminate farmland and affect people. Forecaster Peter Kidds said: "This is going to affect grazing animals because the grass could be contaminated. It might stop milk from the South-East of England being usable. It will make people dirty and those with respiratory problems are likely to suffer."


  • There is a longer-term worry that inhaling the polluted smoke could cause cancer.

    It comes from Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, such as benzene and pyrene, also emitted by incomplete combustion. When breathed in, they cause chemical changes in the body, releasing free radicals that can cause cancer. The disease takes a long time to take effect, so it will be decades before the full toll of the disaster is known.

  • Geoff Charlton of the consultancy Disaster Advice says of the cloud: "We know it's toxic. If you went anywhere near it and started to breathe in, it's probably the same as smoking 400 cigarettes."
  • The Environment Agency fears that using water or foam to try to douse the flames could flush poisonous chemicals into rivers and streams, and perhaps even contaminate water supplies.

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