Inform Your Residents of the Dangers After a Fire
Published: 7/14/2023
Author: Sean Scott, Author of The Red Guide to Recovery

After residents return to their homes, some may spend days or even weeks being repeatedly exposed to the same toxic chemicals as the firefighters and fire investigators were exposed to. To compound the problem are the board-up companies who cover over windows and doors, which restricts ventilation and allows off-gassing of burned materials to concentrate.

The public doesn’t understand that structure fires generate literally thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals, gases, VOC’s, and toxic byproducts, many of which are known carcinogens. Some can cause sickness and disease through inhalation or dermal absorption with only one exposure. These toxins include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), vaporized heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, asbestos, formaldehyde, benzene, styrene, illicit drug residues, and the list goes on.

One chemical considered to be one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) (1) known as 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD). This chemical is present in most structure fires and is created when plastics, PVC, and other synthetic materials combust. (2) The CDC, NIOSH, and other agencies have determined that there is no permissible exposure limit to TCDD where it can do no harm. (3) Experts have classified it as a carcinogen, teratogen, mutagen, neurotoxin, genotoxin, and endocrine disrupting chemical. (4) It is so toxic that it is measured in picograms, (trillionths of a gram) and femtograms (quadrillionths of a gram). (5)

Some fire departments are aware of the health risks associated with post-structure fire environments and are taking action to protect their residents. One effective way is to post signs on fire-damaged buildings before leaving the scene. This warns occupants of the dangers of entering a fire damaged building or home without wearing personal protective equipment and reduces potential liability.

This simple act of placing a warning sign on the front of a fire damaged building not only raises awareness to occupants, but also to contractors, building officials, insurance adjusters, and anyone else who may need to enter the building later on.

(1)  World Health Organization - Dioxins and their effects on human healthUnited Nations Stockholm Convention - The 12 initial POPs under the Stockholm Convention
(2)  National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services - Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition - 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin CAS No. 1746-01-6
(3)  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(4)  Dioxins – The Most Hazardous Substance in Structure Fire Environments – (Reference numbers 23-56)
(5)  United States General Accounting Office – Report to Congressional Requesters – April 2002 Environmental Health Risks Information on EPA’s Draft Reassessment of Dioxins (page 5)

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