Written By: Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP
January 5, 2017
Only recently has the ability to accurately test for the residuals of fires become reasonably sophisticated.
There have long been concerns for the health of firefighters from fire emissions. Also, occupants of buildings and even neighborhoods affected by fire and the residuals of those fires are often greatly concerned about contaminants that exist for days, weeks, months, after the fire has been extinguished.
Perhaps the experience of the many firefighters, resources, clean-up contractors, and nearby neighbors to the 911 event in New York City has awakened our concerns for the efforts of the potentially thousands of individuals involved in the firefighting, rescue, demolition, reconstruction and nearby occupancy of this 16 acres of unspeakable Tragedy.
Another situation that advanced the science of “fire residual exposures” were the many fires in the West presumably due to global warming that adversely affected rural areas, suburbs, and even major urban areas. “Adverse effects” not only refers to the fire itself but the smoke, fumes, and contaminants that drifted miles and miles from the fire itself.
In the not too distant past, the “all clear and healthy” sign was given as long as there was not black soot/ash present and there were no residual odors. However, the absence of visible soot and the absence of detectable odors (by whom?) does not ensure that there aren’t still contaminants present. Remember that the particles that can be inhaled into the recesses of our respiratory system are not visible to the naked eye. Also, “detectable odors” is a widely varied range of human odor detection. Finally, even if is not detected does not mean the contaminant is not present and that it is not capable of causing adverse effects on humans.
The contaminants created by fires are known and are now more readily detected by scientific methods of sampling and analysis.
What are those contaminants?
-Soot, ash – primarily carbon of various particle sizes many of which are respirable.
-Metals – Lead, Iron, Chrome, Nickel, Cadmium.
-Synthetic Decomposition particulates of plastics and other solid materials.
-Molds – residual growth due to water saturation.
Chemicals – Many decomposition products are absorbed (or adsorbed) onto the fire residual particulates such as styrene, benzene and many other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). (Did you know there are about 75 organic materials have been identified from the thermal decomposition of PVC?)
-Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Acrolein, Aldehydes, Hydrogen Chloride, Sulfur Dioxide, Phenols, Hydrogen Sulfide, Polycyclic Hydrocarbons as PAH’s, Hydrogen Cyamide, and Oxides of Nitrogen.
-Unburned or volatized chemicals whether petroleum products, or produced, or stored chemicals that have been released into the air from the heat of a fire.
These agents can be present long after the fire is out—and even after a clean-up has been performed.
This presence of fire residual particulates and chemicals can extend even to areas not directly involved in the fire itself.
The first possibility is downwind where the smoke and other agents affect residences, businesses, public buildings often miles away.
The second possibility is other areas within the same building where the fire was not severe enough to affect the entire building, or it was contained before it involved the entire building. In this instance, the HVAC system was likely still operating and carrying fire residuals elsewhere or the fire residual extended onto the roof and was drawn into the air intakes of the building or even adjacent buildings.
The third possibility is mold growth due to water damage.
The methods of sampling and analysis for the residual particulates, the chemicals that may be absorbed (or adsorbed) onto the soot, or decomposition chemicals, have improved significantly in the past few years, as has the ability to sample and analyze for mold.
At the same time, suspected hazardous air contaminants such as phosgene, if detected at all, have generally been found to be below any potential hazardous concentration.
We welcome the opportunity to address specific situations related to smoke and fire residuals and contaminants. Feel free to contact us by phone (800-344-4414) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Our primary service areas for Fire and Smoke Residual Air Contaminants Sampling/Testing are: NJ, NY, NYC, PA, CT, DE, MA, RI, Wash DC, WI, MD, MI, IL, VA, IN, GA, AL, NC, SC, TN, TX, OK, DC, AR, we can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.
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