Oil blast smoke fears for asthmatics

Last updated at 08:28 12 December 2005

Asthma sufferers and the elderly may be more susceptible to the effects of the plume of black smoke resulting from the oil depot explosions, doctors warned.

Residents living close to the site of the blasts were warned to stay inside their homes with their doors and windows closed.

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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.

"The trouble is there are all sorts of different chemicals in the smoke.

"Petroleum products are known to produce a whole series of nasty acidic chemicals, as well as carbon monoxide.

"It is potentially possible that all of these will be inhaled. Obviously, the nearer you are to where the fire is the worse it can be."

Prof Lenney, consultant paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, said side-effects could include coughing, difficulty breathing and a lack of concentration as oxygen levels drop in the brain.

"You can get direct damage to the lining of the airways from the upper airways right down into the lungs.

"When you are not breathing good quality oxygen, but oxygen containing nasty products, it can produce swelling in the lungs.

"You might just continue to cough but if you get a lot of irritation around the throat you can start to have difficulty in breathing.

"If high levels of carbon monoxide are breathed in oxygen levels are going to start to fall, people may have difficulty concentrating as it starts to affect the brain as well as the lungs."

Prof Lenney said he would expect the number of visits to local GPs and drop-in healthcare centres to increase over the coming days.

"I wouldn't be surprised if more calls to GP surgeries and drop-in centres are made over the coming days especially from those who have chronic lung disease and asthma.

"I think it's good advice to stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. As long as the fire is going it will continue to belch out these nasty gases."

Anyone experiencing these sorts of respiratory symptoms should contact their general practitioner, or go to their local accident and emergency unit.

While staff at Hemel Hempstead General Hospital said that the initial casualty influx was over by early afternoon yesterday, extra beds and intensive care facilities were laid aside for anyone suffering complications as a result of the smoke hanging over the area.

While full details of the chemical content of the smoke was not yet available. Howard Borkett-Jones, medical director of the hospital, said staff had been told the smoke was of "low toxicity".

However, they were prepared for some respiratory problems.

He said: "Those could include feelings of 'tightness' in the chest or coughing.

"We are obviously liaising closely with the other emergency services that keep us informed.

We understand that in general terms it is of low toxicity but people might experience some irritation to their respiratory system, some slight tightness in the chest because of irritation and coughing as a result of exposure to noxious chemicals in the atmosphere."

Doctors were being advised by the Poisons and Toxicology Unit in London on how to deal with chemical incidents.

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