Compton chemical spill triggers hundreds of odor complaints

More than 200 odor complaints were filed with air quality regulators on Thursday after a bag containing a chemical used to make plastic sheeting opened up early in the morning at a factory in Compton, which triggered investigations.

The incident began around 1:30 a.m. when a bag of about 300 pounds of the chemical was placed in a furnace at the Plaskolite plant, according to Roger Hamilton, the company’s vice president of operations. The bag opened around 3:30 a.m. and began emitting a strong odor.

The chemical that leaked was methyl methacrylate, or MMA, which is also used in superglue, Hamilton said.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department said the South Coast Air Quality Management District notified it at 9:30 a.m. of the spill inside a reactor furnace.

“The spill was caused by a ruptured bag that typically picks up odors from the chemicals as they convert from liquid to solid,” public health officials said. The department “has not received any complaints from the public.”

MMA is a colorless liquid with a slightly fruity odor and can irritate the eyes, nose, lungs and skin, public health officials said. Humans can detect the smell of the chemical at concentrations of around 0.05 parts per million.

A Los Angeles County hazardous materials crew, along with firefighters, were still at the scene late Thursday afternoon to help clean up, said Esteban Benitez, a spokesman for the county fire department.

When asked if there were any potential health risks, Benitez said the incident was still under investigation and he was unable to provide further information. .

The Department of Public Health said it measured “odors and airborne levels of the chemical” in nearby residential areas. “All readings were undetectable at 0.0 parts per billion, indicating the areas measured are safe for the public,” the department said.

Public health officials said they will continue to monitor indoor and perimeter readings for any risk to the public.

“If residents have symptoms, they should see their personal treating physician,” the department said.

Michael Kleinman, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC Irvine, said MMA is relatively low on the toxicity scale but can cause irritation, especially in sensitive groups. He said the Environmental Protection Agency considers it unlikely to be carcinogenic, although “it certainly isn’t impossible in some people”.

At 5:15 a.m., the South Coast Air District began receiving complaints about plastic and chemical smells in the Long Beach area. The number rose to more than 200 by late afternoon, said district spokeswoman Kim White.

White said the cause of the spill and possible enforcement actions will be assessed upon completion of the investigation.

MMA has “a very low odor threshold,” meaning it can be smelled at very low concentrations, Kleinman said. He described it as smelling a bit sweet.

“Almost all of our neighbors, who were sort of downhill from the plant, could smell it,” said Hamilton, the Plaskolite executive.

Hamilton said at the heart of the spill was an operator who believed he was turning on an oven to cook the substance, but actually turned it off.

Hamilton said the substance must be cooked to undergo the intended reaction. With the oven turned off, the bag puffed up and eventually cracked, he said.

The substance, he said, starts out as a liquid and then bakes into a solid. It’s used by Plaskolite to make plastic sheets, he said, like those that served as protective partitions during the pandemic.

However, once the process has started, it cannot be stopped, Hamilton said. Plant operators therefore continued to cook the substance until Thursday afternoon. The longer it cooks, he says, the more the smell dissipates.

He said the hazardous materials team asked the factory to add a scrubber to the furnace exhaust, which contains an odor neutralizer.

Symptoms of exposure to the substance are “concentration-oriented,” Kleinman said.

“If someone was just in the emission cloud, they could have a lot more,” he said, “but with that low odor threshold, most people would smell it and get frustrated. They wouldn’t hang around to get more visibility.

Chronic exposure in the workplace can lead to respiratory symptoms, including worsening lung function, Kleinman said.

Times staff writers Kiera Feldman and Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

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