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Philadelphia residents told to consider bottled water after chemical spill

The American flag hangs from a building near Philadelphia City Hall on November 4, 2020, in Philadelphia, Pa.  (Spencer Platt)
By Emily Schmall New York Times

Philadelphia officials Sunday suggested residents consider using bottled water rather than tap water for drinking and cooking after a chemical spill into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for about 14 million people across four states.

A pipe ruptured at Trinseo PLC, a chemical plant, late Friday, sending about 8,100 gallons of a water-soluble acrylic polymer solution into Otter Creek in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, officials said.

“Contaminants have not been found in our water system at this time,” Michael Carroll, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for transportation, infrastructure and sustainability, said at a news conference Sunday morning.

However, he said, “we cannot be 100% that there will not be traces of these chemicals in the tap water,” adding that a low level of exposure would not endanger human health.

“It’s like the material you find in paint,” Tim Thomas, a vice president at the Trinseo chemical plant, told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. “It’s your typical acrylic paint you have in your house. That’s what really this material is, in a water base.”

Company representatives could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said on-site water samples had not detected any contaminants. As of Sunday morning, “no additional product was leaving the facility and entering the Delaware River,” the agency said.

Still, the U.S. Coast Guard, which also responded to the spill, said people should avoid the site where cleanup operations were underway.

Carroll said at the news conference that there were no concerns over skin exposure to the chemical or of a fire hazard.

“Bathing and washing dishes do not present a concern,” he said. “Likewise, we have no concern over inhaling fumes at the levels we are evaluating.”

Two of the chemicals released through the burst pipe were butyl acrylate and ethyl acrylate, both colorless liquids with an acrid odor that are used for making paints, caulks and adhesives.

Both chemicals can cause breathing difficulties and irritation of the eyes and skin, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Butyl acrylate was among the hazardous materials aboard the Norfolk Southern train that derailed and ignited a toxic chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, in February.

With the scope of the Norfolk Southern disaster still unknown, some people expressed a wariness to trust officials’ assurances that the Friday spill in Bucks County was not dangerous.

Comments posted on Facebook about the news conference by Philadelphia officials drew parallels to the Ohio derailment and reflected a reluctance to drink the municipal tap water.

Local television news showed Philadelphia residents emptying grocery shelves of bottled water Sunday afternoon.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.