Structure fire (fire involving the structural components of a building) can be a devastating and catastrophic life event. Fire events can range from minor smoke events (e.g., burning food) to complete burning and destruction of a property. Following a fire event, property owners, insurance companies and neighboring residents are generally looking for answers to questions such as: What is damaged? Is it safe to return to my home? Are my belongings salvageable? In instances where physical damage (e.g., burned materials) is not observed, answering these questions may be difficult.
What is the Smoke Composed of?
A structure fire can create a very toxic environment. The composition of smoke depends on the nature of the burning fuel (source) and the conditions of combustion. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter (char, ash, soot). However, structure fires typically involve the burning of plastics, synthetic materials, electronics, and other building materials, which can produce a wide range of organic chemicals and oxygenated compounds. Inorganic chemicals, such as asbestos and metals, can also be a component of smoke released during a fire event resulting from the burning of materials.
What are the Potential Human Health Effects?
Exposure to smoke can cause acute and chronic health effects. Smoke is irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat, and its odor may be nauseating. Although there are many toxic compounds produced during fire events, the most common health threat to an occupant returning to a property is from fine particles, also known as PM2.5 (particles with diameters that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller). These airborne microscopic particles can remain present, penetrate deep into your lungs, and cause a range of health problems, such as burning eyes, runny nose, bronchitis and asthma. 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.
Impacts to the Structure
When evaluating the impact to structures after a fire, it is important to know that each property and evaluation is unique and should be assessed based on site specifics, project considerations and the information provided.
The most important aspect of a structure fire assessment is the on-site visual assessment. Visual cues include: visible fire damage, fire and smoke related particulates, smoke staining and corrosion. However, impact to properties may not always be visually apparent to the naked eye, necessitating the need for sampling of surfaces in certain instances.
Additionally, structure fires typically result in odors due to the burning of various manufactured materials. Depending on what burned, a specific odor may be generated. Burning of plastic materials can generate a synthetic type smoke odor while protein fires, which are caused by burning foods, can generate a repugnant smell with little visible impact.
Who do I Call for Help?
Occupants returning to buildings or fire damaged areas are likely to notice odors and experience health symptoms from contaminants in their environment. This frequently leads to increased concerns about indoor air quality, what is salvageable, and appropriate remediation protocols.
Using the knowledge we have at FACS regarding recognizing and evaluating hazards, we can assist various parties in answering these questions – especially in situations where the level of impact is not visually identifiable. FACS assesses properties using a myriad of background information and on-site investigation (sensory observations) coupled with sampling as deemed necessary.
Following a structure fire event, FACS has provided clients with support during recovery efforts in a number of ways, including:
- assessing impact and development of clean-up recommendations
- human health risk assessment
- conducting sampling/assessment to verify acceptable clean-up
- surveying destroyed or damaged structures for asbestos, lead and other potential hazards
- litigation support