COMMUNITY HEALTH can be a sleepy subject – unless, perhaps, it is your own community that is under fire. Or on fire, as in the case of Braintree, where a conflagration in February at Clean Harbors, the largest hazardous waste disposal facility in New England, incinerated three trailers containing a slurry of toxic materials.

In a meeting recently with María Belén Power, the state’s new undersecretary of environmental justice and equity, public health experts and community members emphasized that the flawed public and environmental health response to the February 16 fire should serve as a wake-up call. There is an urgent need, they said, to develop a regional disaster preparedness plan now, given the highly explosive infrastructure whose health and safety risks the heavily populated Fore River basin community shoulders.

I (Braintree Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio) witnessed the fire firsthand. The emergency response was hampered from the start. At first, the fire department couldn’t get through Clean Harbor’s gate. Two fire hydrants weren’t working; a third was so far from the fire that extra hoses were required to reach it. During the search for a working hydrant, the fire jumped from one trailer to the next; the placards that stated what the trailer contained melted in the flames, and the manifests could not be located.

The fire department was forced to use water to extinguish the chemical fire–a potentially catastrophic decision. When the contents of the trailers were finally determined, it was discovered that one of the chemicals, chromium, explodes on contact with water, which likely accounted for the explosive popping sounds residents heard from blocks away.

But the fire department had to use water–400,000 gallons of it– because there was no firefighting foam, the usual material used to extinguish a chemical fire, available in that area of the Clean Harbors facility. As the fire jumped from one trailer to the next, first responders were keenly aware that more trailers of hazardous waste surrounded the ones in flames and these in turn were flanked by Citgo fuel tanks in one direction, and the Weymouth compressor station in the other.

I explained to Belén Power that other than a Facebook post at 11:30 p.m. on the evening of the fire, there was no broad alert sent out to the community or to neighboring communities about the emergency. Most community members learned about the fire on the news the next day or from neighbors. One mother with young children who lived close by walked them to school and let them play outside the next morning, oblivious of the risk.

That was unfortunate because the fire resulted in a triple-digit spike in airborne particulate matter (PM2.5)pollution, which was detected at air quality sensors in Weymouth and Quincy.

PM2.5 pollution at high levels is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and irregular heart rhythms in adults, and with asthma and other respiratory diseases in children. Pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and individuals with underlying medical conditions are highly vulnerable to this form of pollution.

Firefighters and police officers from multiple municipalities were almost certainly exposed to high levels of toxic and carcinogenic pollutants at the site during and after the fire. Residents reported experiencing respiratory symptoms during and for days following this event. Possibly due to the known inversion effect that keeps pollution locked into the area, smoke was observed not just in Braintree but in Weymouth and Quincy, and soot-like material was noted on surrounding homes and cars across the Fore River Basin.

The fire has left behind a raft of questions, many still unanswered.

Most worrisome are lingering questions about health effects. The fire generated dense clouds of black, oily smoke that almost certainly contained multiple toxic contaminants such as xylene, benzene, and toluene; according to the Clean Harbors air modeler, the smoke also contained the known carcinogen dioxin. Additionally, DEP staff disclosed at the meeting that cobalt carbonyl, possibly on filters, was thought to have been involved in and possibly to have triggered the fire. It is a highly toxic chemical, flammable and irritating to skin and mucous membranes.

In short, the smoke would have dispersed a hazardous soup of health-harming chemicals, magnifying the health effects of the region’s existing air pollution, already elevated above the state average.

Why, community members wonder, has there been no outreach by local or state health officials to residents or first responders to counsel them to obtain baseline health testing?

Why did the local hazmat team have no formal training?

Why has Clean Harbors been allowed to reopen despite ongoing glaring errors in their safety plan?

In short, why wasn’t the public health response to the Clean Harbors fire as robust as that of the Indiana Health Department recently when faced with a hazardous waste fire there?

Residents of Braintree were quick to see the similarities–and stark differences–in the disparate approaches of the two communities.

In Indiana, families were instructed to stay indoors, not open windows, and refrain from using heating or air conditioning systems that can draw in outside air. They were told to keep pets indoors also.

Moreover, that community was given direct warnings of the hazards of breathing in PM2.5 and other toxins from the fire: “There are very fine particles and if they are breathed in can cause all kinds of respiratory problems,” the residents were told by the Indiana public health department. It was noted that “people could experience a burning sensation in their eyes and tightening in the chest. It could aggravate asthma and cause bronchitis.”

When residents of Braintree and surrounding communities complained to public health officials of burning eyes and difficulty breathing, they were told not to worry, that no special precautions were required.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician, public health expert, and director of the global public health program at Boston College, shared with Belén Power that increasing the number of air pollution monitors in high-risk areas in the Fore River Basin and across the state would better protect health.

So would obtaining independent data to inform investigations, Landrigan said. At the meeting, DEP acknowledged relying solely on data generated by Clean Harbors’ paid consultants.

It is critical, Landrigan said, to collect soil and dust samples in a timely manner and preferably immediately after chemical events. Returning to take samples months after an event, as DEP said it would if the company’s data does not appear to be sound, would likely be unproductive due to degradation of environmental samples.

Finally, Landrigan noted the importance of the elevated PM 2.5 pollution spikes that were initially discounted by DEP officials; those spikes, he noted, matter because they have health effects.

Community members raised concerns about why the transport and processing of hazardous materials isn’t held to higher safety standards. Not only is it not prudent to transport chemicals together that require different means of fire suppression; it is in generally illegal to transport hazardous materials that are not named on the manifest.

So far, Clean Harbors has not been cited for negligence and the fire’s health effects have been minimized by officials and by the company air modeler, who compared the hazardous waste conflagration to a small “house fire” — ignoring the fact that house fires neither require 400,000 gallons of water to extinguish nor the removal of the very pavement on which that water falls – as was done at the Clean Harbors fire. Indeed, the detritus from this fire has been considered so toxic that waste facilities in other states have refused to accept it.

An entire community waits for answers in the aftermath of this fire.

Fire departments need hazmat squads that are trained, which was not the case in Braintree; and such squads need to make sure that they have the proper protective equipment and are using it. Such a response needs to be developed and tested to ensure that communities are protected.

DEP shared its commitment to taking community input on a regional disaster response plan. Community member Alice Arena noted that such a plan was promised to Weymouth five years ago–and needs to be developed now, not later. Moreover, these issues require not just a future plan but one that addresses present and past injustices.    

This is the right opportunity for Gov. Maura Healey and her new administration to demonstrate their commitment to environmental justice and equity. Suspending regular operations at Clean Harbor until these critical issues are addressed and a root cause analysis is completed, as the mayor of Braintree has urged in a letter to Clean Harbors, is prudent. What occurred in Braintree is an injustice, and it’s affecting the health of not only today’s adults but tomorrow’s as well.

Elizabeth Maglio is a Braintree city councilor and Dr. Brita Lundberg is chair of the board at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that focuses on public health, cancer epidemiology, occupational medicine, environmental health, emergency medicine, disaster preparedness, and the health effects of climate change.