MDHHS, Wayne County recommend evacuation for areas of Flat Rock due to hazardous fumes from gas leak

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Wayne County Health Department (WCHD) are recommending residents of the Flat Rock area bounded by I-75 to the east, Gibraltar Road to the north, Cahill Road to the west and Woodruff Road to the south evacuate their homes until further notice due to the potential risks caused by fumes from a gasoline leak from a storage tank at the Ford Motor Co.’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant. 

Response teams will go door-to-door immediately beginning Sunday, Sept. 5, in affected areas to ensure residents are informed and receive quick and accurate information about evacuation.

The MDHHS will provide an update on the evacuations during a press briefing Sunday morning. Watch it in the live player above.

MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel spoke about the situation and said they're giving it their full attention.

Hertel said the report started with a single household reporting a gasoline-type odor and immediately started the investigation. They determined the odor came from benzene and the source was determined Friday evening.

At this time, residents are being asked to evacuate but it is not required.

"We don't believe there is any imminent danger at this time, however, we are asking out of an abundance of caution," Hertel said.

In addition to the smaller geographic area described above, there is a broader area of Flat Rock under investigation for potential exposure. This area is bounded by Gibraltar Road to the north, Sheeks Road to the west, East Huron River Drive to the south, and Tamarack Road to the East, as well as buildings along Woodruff between East Huron River Drive and Cahill Road. MDHHS and Wayne County want to make the residents aware of the potential for the chemicals to have traveled to this area and that the area will be under investigation. If residents are concerned about potential exposure to chemicals in their home, they may want to evacuate their homes until further information is available.

At this time, it is unclear which specific homes may be at risk and it is possible residents in some areas of the potentially impacted area have not been exposed. The City of Flat Rock, WCHD, MDHHS, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) continue to work together to understand the potential risks and will update the community as more information is learned. If you need assistance with evacuation and/or relocation, please call Flat Rock’s hotline at 734-782-2455, ext. 6.

The community is at risk of exposure to high levels of benzene, considered a total Volatile Organic Compound (VOC), which can be harmful to human health. Measurements of air inside buildings and sewer lines have shown levels of VOCs exceeding health-protective and/or explosive levels.

Benzene is a flammable and colorless liquid with a sweet odor used to make other chemicals. It is found in gasoline, crude oil and tobacco smoke. Breathing in higher levels of benzene can cause people to feel sleepy or dizzy, have headaches, vomit or have a rapid heart rate. Both long- and short-term exposure to benzene can increase risks of cancer, cause blood problems, and harm the immune system. Contact your healthcare provider if you have symptoms or health concerns, or if you believe you may have been exposed.

Hertel said they do not have a full understanding of how far the benzene has traveled through the sewage system in the area. The testing is expected to take weeks, Hertel said.

The area is believed to be isolated to Flat Rock and is not in the surrounding cities. A total of 9 homes, one business, and one charter school in the area have been evacuated.

"We urge Michiganders in the affected areas to take swift action and evacuate their homes," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS. "You may not be able to see or smell the vapors that could put your health at risk, and we recommend everyone in the affected area consider relocating until further notice and we can confirm it is safe to return to your homes."

Khaldun said during the press briefing that there is not a test to determine the level of benzene exposure. Anyone who has symptoms listed above is urged to seek medical help. So far, there have been no reports of illnesses in the city linked to the benzene leak.

On Aug. 31, MDHHS received a report regarding a potential release of an unknown chemical into the sewer. Along with local, state and federal partners, MDHHS responded to investigate and address the concerns which resulted in confirmation of harmful vapors in the community.

Air sampling conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified elevated levels of VOCs throughout the Flat Rock sanitary sewer system. Partners are working to slow the spread of these chemicals and stop further exposure. Continued monitoring will measure the impact of the contamination in the sewer lines throughout Flat Rock.

MDHHS partnered with the City of Flat Rock, the Wayne County Health Department, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to identify the source, which was confirmed Friday as being the Flat Rock Assembly Plant.