The types and quantities of materials
and products that combust, their chemical reactions, heat, time and other factors
make each post-fire environment unique.
The vast array of toxic chemicals, VOCs
and particulates are limitless, and exposure to them by inhalation, ingestion or
absorption through the skin can have
immediate or long-term health effects.
Fire investigators know all too well the
dangers of post-fire environments and
many have been sickened or died from
exposure to fire toxins.
One example of this occurred when a
fire chief in California walked through
a residential fire to assess the damage.
A short time later, as he was returning
to the fire station, he became ill and his
aide transported him to a local hospital.
The hazardous material response team
was called to the scene and located several glass containers of a substance later
identified as liquid sodium cyanide. The
chief was transported to a medical facility
equipped with a hyperbaric chamber for
treatment and fully recovered. Physicians
and investigators eventually determined
that he had inhaled near-lethal doses of
sodium cyanide from a jewelry refinishing business operating from the home.
Insurance adjusters face similar health
risks in structure fire settings, where they
are exposed to the same toxic chemicals
as firefighters and fire investigators. Here
adjusters encounter residues, VOCs, and
particulates from all sorts of solvents,
acids, chemicals used to manufacture il-
licit drugs, pesticides, automotive fluids,
sewage, bloodborne pathogens, mold, as-
bestos, lead dust and a host of other toxic
Adjusters often come in direct skin
contact with toxin-laden soot and ash
when they cut carpet samples for value
analysis or handle contents during the
inventory process. However, the problem
doesn’t end there. To make matters worse,
smoke odor, particulates, soot and ash get
on clothing, skin, hair and shoes, and are
transferred to cars, offices and homes.
This also exposes coworkers and family
members to the same chemicals and associated health risks.
Smoke, toxic gasses
Considering that cigarette smoke alone
contains over 7,000 chemicals, with 70
identified as cancer-causing, the products
and materials that burn in a structure fire
produce innumerable toxins.
Currently, the EPA has over 85,000
chemicals registered in its inventory of
substances that fall under the Toxic Substances Control Act and approximately
2,000 new chemicals are introduced each
year. The Chemical Abstracts Service is the
world’s authority on chemical informa-
tion and it has over 100 million registered
chemical substances in its registry. These
chemicals are combined in more than
7,000,000 mixture formulations found in
homes and buildings across the U.S. The
majority of the chemicals currently in
commercial use have not been evaluated.
Some of the most toxic chemicals and
gasses found in smoke include: hydrogen
cyanide, phosgene, dioxins, furans, sulfur
dioxide, PCBs, hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, and arsenic. Other toxins may
include benzene, lead, chromium, and
other metals, toluene, acrolein, mercury,
formaldehyde, phenol, styrene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
To illustrate how toxic some of these
chemicals are, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide were used in World War I as chemical warfare agents, resulting in thousands
of casualties. Structure fire smoke frequently contains both of these chemicals.
Dioxins – the worst of the worst
Insurance adjusters are well aware of
hazardous materials such as asbestos,
lead and mold, but few realize how toxic
smoke particulates and soot can be depending on what burned in the fire. Dioxins, especially 2, 3, 7,8-tetrachlorodiben-
zo-p-dioxin (TCDD) have been called
The combination of the lack of ventilation after a board-up
and the toxicity of the combustion byproducts, classifies this
environment as immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH)