Brush and Forest Fires
This is a difficult time for many in the Southwest United States as we witness the devastation and damage of the raging wildfires. At Forensic Analytical Consulting Services (FACS), our passion is protecting the health of people, families, communities and the environment through assessment, education and prevention. As such, we hope you find the following information and resources beneficial.
Wildfire Pollutants and Health Effects
Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases, vapors and fine particles (i.e., soot) produced when wood and other organic matter burn. Among the substances found are gases from partially burned hydrocarbons (e.g., carbon monoxide) and potentially toxic or irritant volatile organic compounds (e.g., acrolein, formaldehyde). All of these constituents can potentially result in adverse health effects. Generally, the most immediate health threat from smoke comes from the fine particles.
These fine particles, also known as PM2.5 (particles with diameters that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller), specifically can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, bronchitis and asthma. Studies have shown that medical visits for respiratory problems increase significantly during fire events. Fine particles can also aggravate existing chronic heart and lung diseases.
Most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from smoke exposure and will not suffer long-term consequences. However, certain sensitive populations may experience more severe short-term and chronic symptoms.
Issues During an Event
Based on guidelines published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the American Lung Association, FACS recommends the following to protect your health from the effects of wildfire smoke:
- Limit physical activity, especially outdoors. Be aware of outdoor conditions. If it looks or smells smoky, it is a good indication that contaminant levels are unhealthful. Pay attention to local air quality reports and news coverage related to smoke. These reports recommend precautions based upon data from local air quality monitors. Recent information is available at: AirNow or your local air quality management district.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is extremely hot outside. Avoid using anything that burns such as candles, fireplaces or gas stoves. Run your ventilation system in order to filter the air. Commercial ventilation system operators should close or limit outdoor air intake, balancing the need for fresh air with the hazards of entrained smoke. In your home, close the flue on your fireplace (assuming it is not in use). Portable air cleaners may further help conditions. Avoid vacuuming, which can temporarily increase airborne particulate levels.
- Be cognizant of increased risks to people with underlying health conditions. Smoky conditions present increased risks to children, elderly persons and individuals with asthma, heart or lung disease. Make sure that symptoms are closely monitored and that physician recommendations are followed.
Issues in the Aftermath of an Event
- Cleaning-up smoke damage. The first steps usually involve purging the space with outdoor air by opening doors, windows, and outdoor air intakes (only if air quality is identified as moderate to good). Replace air filters and run the ventilation system. If odors and irritation persist, cleaning of hard surfaces and porous items may be required (e.g., wiping, scrubbing, carpet cleaning, laundering). A professional restoration contractor may be of assistance in this regard. Except for extreme cases where there are significant amounts of visible debris present in systems, cleaning of ductwork is not advised.
- Addressing odors. Odors are best addressed through cleaning or disposal of contaminated material. Products that purport to “eliminate” odors frequently only mask one odor with another, and in doing so contribute additional chemicals to the indoor air. The use of ozone to eliminate odors in buildings is rarely recommended. Ozone masks odors by deadening the sense of smell, can damage building materials, and can react with other compounds to produce toxic byproducts. More information is available through the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Asbestos, lead and other potential hazards. Fires may destroy structures, however asbestos and lead containing building materials (as well as other contaminants) can still remain. Additionally, dependant on the fire damaged materials; other potential hazards may be present. These materials can present a significant health hazard to clean-up workers and persons nearby. Appropriate assessment and control of such hazards are critical.
- Increased IEQ Issues. Occupants returning to buildings or fire damaged areas are likely to notice odors and experience health symptoms from contaminants in the outdoor environment. This frequently leads to increased concerns about indoor air quality in general, even to agents not associated with fires. Prompt and competent responses to these concerns can frequently prevent them from growing into widespread issues or claims.
- Passage of time. As ash and soot on the ground, on vegetation and in the surrounding environment dissipate, they may continue to contribute contaminants to the indoor environment through foot traffic or air movement. Frequent cleaning and increased efforts to improve indoor air quality may be needed for some time following a wildfire.
In the wake of previous fire events, FACS has been asked by clients to support recovery efforts in a number of ways, including:
- assessing contamination and making clean-up recommendations
- conducting sampling/assessment to verify acceptable clean-up
- real-time monitoring of particulates and carbon monoxide
- surveying destroyed or damaged structures for asbestos, lead and other potential hazards
- consultation on resolving indoor air quality concerns, including general training and education
Some additional resources which may be useful:
Fires and your health
We are standing by to provide our services as needed or to simply answer your questions (310-668-5600). Please do not hesitate to contact us for assistance.