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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

On Friday, March 24, the Bristol-based Baxter power plant, owned by the plastic and latex manufacturing company Trinseo, reported a leak of a latex emulsifier product into the Delaware river. Citizens were advised to refrain from drinking tap water and instead purchase bottled water on the day of the accident. On Tuesday, March 28, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney informed the public that the tap water was safe to consume and proceeded to drink a glass of it at the press briefing to demonstrate. 

Trinseo Mitigation Plans

Concurrently, Trinseo released an apology statement on its company website. The report reassured citizens that company officials are investigating the cause of the plant leak and aiming to reduce future accidents. Dr. Arthur Frank, Drexel professor of public health, emphasized how chemicals present in the latex emulsifier solution (butyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, and methyl methacrylate) would dilute within the water supply to the point of becoming harmless. Last month, butyl acrylate was a prominent chemical found following the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. A Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M research group collecting data in East Palestine suggested that rising levels of the absorbed chemical in the soil after the controlled burn could pose health risks.

Given this information, it is essential to note that an estimated 8,100 gallons of latex emulsion solution left a visible film on the surface of both the Otter Creek and Delaware river at the time of the initial leak. Despite the dilution of three parts per billion, such an amount could still affect citizens during other routine activities involving water use. These could range from oral hygiene to showering and doing laundry. The CDC details how butyl acrylate irritates the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. This observation can be particularly damaging, as the tasks listed above are done fairly frequently and involve skin contact with water. 

Past Incidents & Potential Effects

Officials say Philadelphia residents’ exposure to this chemical has been minimized due to the water supply cut off from Otter Creek to the Baxter treatment plant directly after the spill. With that in mind, this chemical release is not the first of its kind to occur within the same power plant, prompting constant monitoring by governmental organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Immediately following the drinking water advisory, local businesses switched to bottled water for their products. Such a response portrays a cycle of widespread plastic disposal, everpresent in the Delaware river that not only supplies more than half of the Philadelphia population with tap water but houses an endangered fish species. Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, pointed out that this particular disaster had a slower mitigation response than those in the past. She emphasized that there has also been a profound lack of accountability for how these events are affecting the local wildlife. Researchers on duty in East Palestine proposed a similar message urging officials to remain vigilant of the potential long-term effects of heavy chemicals being introduced to the ecosystem.

The integrity of the plant has remained a cause for concern following similar disturbances in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2021. Trinseo purchased the plant in 2021. Both the 2010 and 2021 spills contained substantial amounts of methyl methacrylate, an industrial chemical similar to butyl acrylate that is used to make plastics like Plexiglas. According to the EPA, significant exposure to it may cause respiratory and skin irritation. Studies on rats and mice also show that acute exposure may result in liver and lung damage. Neurological effects following acute exposure may arise as well, with headache, lethargy, lightheadedness, and sensation of heaviness in arms and legs being the main symptoms. Chemical levels within the water supply will be continuously monitored throughout the week to ensure the safety of all Philadelphia citizens. 

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Elena currently studies psychology and biology at Florida State University. In her free time, she loves to dance, write, draw, and try all kinds of foods.