Calcasieu Parish officials are on the scene of a chemical explosion at a plant just across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles.

According to KPLC-TV, the explosion happened around 11 a.m. at the Westlake South Chemical Plant, located between Interstate 10 and the Interstate 210 Loop. Troopers say the explosion occurred among the plant's ethylene dichloride storage tanks. Hazardous materials crews are on their way to the scene.

That explosion has left a mushroom cloud of dark grey smoke hovering over the skies of Westlake, Lake Charles, and other nearby communities.

What exactly is ethylene dichloride? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ethylene dichloride is used for a number of purposes.

"Ethylene dichloride is primarily used in the production of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals," says an EPA fact sheet about the chemical. "It is used in solvents in closed systems for various extraction and cleaning purposes in organic synthesis. It is also added to leaded gasoline as a lead scavenger. It is also used as a dispersant in rubber and plastics, as a wetting and penetrating agent. It was formerly used in ore flotation, as a grain fumigant, as a metal degreaser, and in textile and PVC cleaning."

However, the EPA notes that exposure to ethylene dichloride can cause serious health effects. According to the EPA:

Exposure to low levels of ethylene dichloride can occur from breathing ambient or workplace air. Inhalation of concentrated ethylene dichloride vapor can induce effects on the human nervous system, liver, and kidneys, as well as respiratory distress, cardiac arrhythmia, nausea, and vomiting. Chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to ethylene dichloride produced effects on the liver and kidneys in animals. No information is available on the reproductive or developmental effects of ethylene dichloride in humans. Decreased fertility and increased embryo mortality have been observed in inhalation studies of rats. Epidemiological studies are not conclusive regarding the carcinogenic effects of ethylene dichloride, due to
concomitant exposure to other chemicals. Following treatment by gavage (experimentally placing the chemical in the stomach), several tumor types were induced in rats and mice. EPA has classified ethylene dichloride as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.

You can read the full fact sheet here.

As a result of that explosion, schools in Sulphur and Westlake were places under a shelter-in-place order. District officials lifted that order after about an hour.

This explosion is the third chemical plant explosion to happen in the Lake Charles area in less than two years. Jane Patton with the Center for International Environmental Law breaks down the series of incidents on her Twitter feed.

In addition to the rising smoke, residents near the plant knew the explosion happened because they felt its force.

A spokesman for Westlake Chemical tells KPLC that six employees suffered minor injuries in the blast. One was treated on site; the others were taken to the hospital. The spokesman also said there is no vapor from the ethylene dichloride in the air and that all shelters-in-place orders have been lifted.

This is a developing story.

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