House fires are terrifying because the flames can cause intense bodily harm that results in serious injury and even death. Once the fire is put out, many homeowners are relieved in the sense that the threat to their life or health has ended. However, the flames themselves are not the only potential source of health issues. Many of the byproducts of a fire are toxic. Fires leave behind smoke, soot, corrosive byproducts, and even mold that negatively affects your health. It is important to know the health risks caused by the byproducts of a fire to keep yourself and your family safe in the aftermath.
All fires involve smoke and everyone knows that smoke inhalation is extremely dangerous because of the chemicals it contains. Smoke is the byproduct of incomplete combustion and contains the following toxins:
Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN): The potential health effects of carbon monoxide are well known as many homes have carbon monoxide detectors for safety. Less people know about the risks of the other major chemical in smoke, hydrogen cyanide. Hydrogen cyanide is over 30 times more toxic than carbon monoxide and inhaling a combination of both can be deadly. Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of fire related deaths.
Chemicals from Burnt Materials: When materials such as wood, drywall, and flooring are burned in a fire, they release hundreds of chemicals in the smoke that are harmful to your health. Some of the dangerous chemicals released by burning household materials include hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, carboxylic acids, nitrogen oxides, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, and much more.
After the fire and smoke have cleared, there is still a substance present that can spread throughout the home and cause health issues as well as property damage; soot. Soot is dangerous because it spreads and settles everywhere including the air ducts where it can get redistributed into the air. Most health problems caused by soot result from inhalation but soot can also get absorbed in the skin and eyes. The main health effects from soot include lung irritation and respiratory issues such as bronchitis and asthma as well as more serious issues including heart attack, stroke, and even cancer.
Few people associate mold growth with house fires but if a house fire is extinguished with water, this excess moisture can quickly lead to mold growth. Moisture is the main cause of mold growth and organic materials that are wet from putting out the fire can become contaminated with mold within 48 hours. Mold not only adds to the health risks already present after a fire, but also causes even more property damage that makes the restoration process longer and more expensive.
If a fire breaks out in your home, make sure that everyone evacuates safely and do not return to your home until it has been restored and deemed safe. The byproducts of a fire are just as dangerous as the fire itself and can cause serious health effects long after the fire has been put out. It is of extreme importance to begin the fire damage restoration as soon as possible by hiring professionals that can safely remove dangerous byproducts from soot and smoke. These professionals have effective cleaning products and personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe during the restoration process
Expert in emergency fire and water restoration services, fire cleanup and water damage cleanup, mold removal, as well as carpet and upholstery cleaning services. Contributor to several restoration and cleaning blogs.
Indoor air quality is important to government agencies, schools, businesses, building staff, and occupants because it can impact both positively and negatively the health, comfort, well being, and productivity of building occupants.
Studies have shown that the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi in and around a building serves as a source of indoor bio-pollutant. World Health Organization (WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality, 2009) concluded
that the most important effect is increased prevalence of respiratory symptoms, allergies and asthma, as well as perturbation of the immunological systems. According to the report building dampness (supporting factor for microbial growth in buildings) varies widely from country to country and climatic zone. Dampness is estimated to affect 10-50% of all indoor environments in North America, Australia, Europe, India, and Japan.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) most Americans spend up to 90% of their time indoors and many spend most of their working hours in an office environment. Environmental studies conducted by the independent scientific groups, EPA and others have shown that indoor air pollutants levels are greater than levels found outside.
What are some types of indoor air pollutants that may affect my building?
Biological contaminants: the biological contaminants can consist of bacteria, viruses, fungi (mold), dust mite allergen, animal dander, insect biodetritus, fibers and fiberglass, pollen, cockroach allergen, etc… and may result from inadequate maintenance and housekeeping, water spills, inadequate humidity control, condensation, or may be brought into the building by occupants, infiltration, or ventilation air. Allergic responses to indoor biological pollutant exposures cause symptoms in allergic individuals and also play a key role in triggering asthma episodes for an estimated 15 million Americans.
Chemical pollutants: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals. VOCs are numerous, varied, and ubiquitous. They include both human-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds. Chemical pollutants can include tobacco smoke, emissions from products used in the building (e.g., office equipment; furniture, wall and floor coverings e.g. formaldehyde; and cleaning and consumer products) accidental spill of chemicals, and gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are products of combustion.
Particles. Particles are solid or liquid substances which are light enough to be suspended in the air, the largest (8 microns and greater) of which may be visible in sunbeams streaming into a room are typically non respirable. However, the smaller particles (7 microns and smaller) that you cannot see are likely to be more harmful to health since these are considered respirable. Particles of dust, dirt, or other substances may be drawn into the building from outside and can also be produced by activities that occur in buildings e.g. operation and maintenance practices, housekeeping practices, printing, copying, operating equipment, construction, remodeling, people….
Is establishing baseline IAQ conditions in my building important?
Yes, as Yogi Berra once said “if you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there?”Indoor air quality is no different. If you don’t know the present IAQ conditions of your building are and you are having IAQ upgrades performed to enhance your buildings IAQ then how would you know that you improved those conditions if you didn’t have a baseline to start with? You wouldn’t.
It is not practical to design a universal guideline fit for all in terms of exposure and health because immunity varies greatly from individual to individual. EDLab at Pure Air Control Services performed a 10 year study analyzing more than 7,000 buildings and over 25,000 environmental samples that were collected across the United States and abroad. The building types included both commercial and residential. The majority of samples analyzed were tested positive for bacteria and fungi.
In this study the average (normal baseline) concentration of air-borne culture-able (viable) bacteria was 175 CFU (Colony Forming Unit)/m3, and the fungal concentration in ambient air was recorded at 350 CFU/m3. The average concentration of non viable air-borne mold/fungal elements was estimated at approximately 1,000 cts (counts)/ m3. These baseline numbers are used as a reliable indicator for an expected average of disseminated microbial (bacteria/fungi only) concentrations in today’s modern buildings.
With wildfires burning throughout the state, in addition to recent local grass fires, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District continues to warn the public about poor air quality, including incidents of severely bad air that may occur sporadically in the coming days.
For a few hours late Saturday, the amount of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air spiked in Bakersfield and all eight counties across the San Joaquin Valley air district, to a Level 5, the highest level, where all people are advised to remain indoors.
By the next day, Bakersfield had clearer skies and air quality was back down to a moderate range. District officials said winds temporarily pushed smoke into the valley during that several hour period.
“All that pollution literally just inundated the entire San Joaquin Valley,” said Cassandra Melching, outreach and communication representative for the air district.
Because the air can be safe at one point in the day and dangerous at another, depending upon wind flows, Melching said an air quality alert is standing for all areas.
On Saturday, regions farther north in close proximity to the fire were substantially affected, Melching said, with Oakhurst in Madera County reaching a PM 2.5 concentration of 246 micrograms per cubic meter. It takes only 75 micrograms to reach level five risk. Bakersfield hit 87 micrograms that same day.
“We can’t quite say who is going to be impacted the most and when…It doesn’t mean that every single day our air quality is bad,” Melching said.
Glen Stephens, air pollution control officer of the Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District, said the district has not released any alerts, but is tracking the smoke levels. He said there is less of a concern in eastern Kern County and mountain areas compared to valley locations like Bakersfield, but that there is still poor air quality.
“It’s generally bad. Right now it’s bad because of ozone, not because of the fire,” Stephens said.
The best way to know whether it is safe to be outdoors is by tracking your location on the Valley Air app or online at valley air.org. It is especially important for sensitive groups such as the elderly and those with asthma to remain cautious and updated.
Melching said to also be aware of the potential for ash in the air, which is most likely when temperatures cool down and is not monitored in the air quality levels.
“If you smell smoke, or if you see ash falling, you are being impacted,” Melching said.
Ways to reduce your risk of being affected by the smoke are to limit outdoor exercise, stay hydrated, change your air air filters and keep windows shut.
As students, parents and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools prepare for summer break, discussions continue about the indoor air quality of an East Winston elementary school.
District administrators and a handful of Board of Education members sat down Monday with parents at Ashley Academy for Cultural and Global Studies to discuss air-quality concerns and what school officials plan to do about them.
Steps have been taken by the board to help improve the school building’s air quality before the new school year, but some in the community have publicly called for further action in the form of a new school building they feel is overdue.
The purpose of Monday’s meetings was to sit down with parents and answer any questions or address concerns they had about the subject.
“They have a plan in place I think that will bring the school up to where it needs to be come August,” said Renee Hairston, who has a grandson at Ashley.
Earlier this semester, concerns about the indoor air quality at the school were expressed to administration and the board.
Two air-quality reports prior to that showed low levels of indoor mold spores.
But a new report released in April showed evidence of mold growth in some HVAC units, and recommended replacing or cleaning the units.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s website, mold can cause allergy and respiratory infections, and worsen conditions such as asthma, for those sensitive to it.
The board voted in early May to go ahead with replacing units during the summer months at a total cost of $1.585 million.
School board member Elisabeth Motsinger said the meeting Monday was positive. “I think it was good to hear directly from parents what their concerns were and to be able to answer their questions with reliable, good and accurate information,” she said.
Hairston said that if she didn’t think the school and the district were taking the right steps, she would not have her grandson return to Ashley next fall.
“But I think they’re taking the right steps,” she said. “They’re doing as much as they can until they get the funds on the referendum to replace the school. So I think they’re doing OK.”
At the May 22 board meeting, a group of concerned citizens under the name #Action4Ashley had a large presence and spoke during public comment, saying they felt not enough attention has been given to Ashley and the air quality. Many asked that funds be moved around in the 2016 bond to speed up the process of designing and building a new Ashley school building.
Mold is a common household nuisance and is found both inside and outside in varying amounts. For some people, mold and its spores cause very few problems, while for others it can be devastating—even life threatening. In the U.S., there are over two million children with chronic and other serious conditions that are at higher risk for the dangers that mold in their homes and schools can cause. This is due to their weakened immune systems that leave them more susceptible to infection and allow mold to have a more harmful impact. As many as one-third of the children in the U.S., including those who are considered to be “healthy,” are at risk for allergic reactions to mold. Babies that have been exposed to mold, even without incident, may be at a higher risk for developing allergies and even asthma as they get older, which is why mold exposure can be damaging even if no negative symptoms are immediately detected.
Symptoms of mold allergies are typically similar to those of other allergies, which can make it harder to determine the cause. These include sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, wheezing, and coughing. However, symptoms can escalate to more serious problems such as respiratory and circulatory issues. Mold flourishes in warm, damp environments, which is why warm summer temperatures frequently stir up mold allergies. Make sure to stock the medicine cabinet with the appropriate tools and treatments for babies and small children in order to be prepared to treat any symptoms.
t is important for local health departments to take steps to educate families in their area on this issue to prevent easily avoidable dangers. The remainder of this blog include valuable tips and resources on mitigating health risks related to mold exposure.
Stopping Mold Before It Grows
Prevention is always easier than treatment, especially with mold. Once it gets started, some molds are more difficult to control and may require additional treatments and work. Local health departments should educate their community members on taking the following preventative measures to reduce health risks associated with mold exposure.
Reduce humidity in the home:
Because mold thrives in warm and wet conditions, try to keep dampness to a minimum. Install a dehumidifier if necessary. Open windows for ventilation, but close them when there are reports of higher humidity levels.
Keep houseplants to a minimum in rooms that may be at higher risk of mold growth, such as rooms with high moisture levels and low ventilation.
This is especially important in rooms that do not get visited often, such as the basement, where signs of mold growth can go undetected for longer periods of time.
Do not use carpeting in the bathroom, especially with children. Use washable mats or a towel on the floor instead. Dry the floor as soon as possible.
Bathrooms are particularly vulnerable to mold growth, because they often do not have windows, which makes ventilating the damp area more difficult. If there is a window, open it often to dry out the bathroom.
If there is an exhaust fan in the bathroom, turn it on as soon as the bath is done so that the room gets dried up quickly.
Other common areas for mold growth include the shower curtain and around the bathtub and the sinks.
Any appliances that require water are common places for leaks and mold growth. Be sure to inspect under refrigerators, icemakers, dishwashers, coffee makers, etc.
Repair any leaking pipes. Clean up any water immediately and use a fan to make sure that any moisture is dried.
Increase the drainage away from the house to protect against leaks.
Summer Toys: The Perfect Hiding Spot for Mold
Pool, bath, and teething toys are breeding grounds for mold, because they can hold a lot of moisture and harbor mold growth undetected for long periods of time. Local health departments should provide the following prevention and treatment tips to limit mold exposure for children engaging in summertime activities and during bath time.
During summer months, kids are playing with many moisture-laden toys to keep cool such as pool noodles, water guns, absorbent animals and balls, and all sorts of inflatable pool toys. Make sure these and other water-friendly toys are squeezed out and left out to dry before storing them after use.
Eliminate the risk by using alternative toys such as measuring cups, stacking blocks, and other items without places for water to hide. The advantage of these toys is the ability to toss them directly in the dishwasher after swimming or a bath.
Swimsuits and towels are also used and re-used frequently in the summertime. Do not leave either of these sitting in a ball somewhere. It is important to pick them up and spread them out in a ventilated or breeze spot so they can completely dry out before use.
Be sure to regularly wash suits, towels, and any other damp clothing.
For regular bath toys, one option is to plug the small holes with water-resistant glue. This keeps them from squeaking and/or shooting water but keeps them mold free.
Boil bath toys about once a week, and allow them to air dry completely.
Soak toys in white vinegar overnight to clean them. The vinegar odor will dissipate as it dries.
Teething toys can also harbor moisture for mold to grow. Squeeze all of the water or drool out of rubber or mesh teething toys and clean them using a damp cloth.
Teething and bath toys can be run through the sanitize cycle on the dishwasher and then allowed to air dry.
A Surprising Source of Mold
One of the most surprising sources of mold problems can be found in children’s sippy cups/water bottles, used increasingly often during summer months as a source of hydration. Many people do not completely disassemble sippy cups when they are cleaning them, greatly increasing the potential for mold growth. Local health departments should provide the following cleaning steps for sippy cups/ water bottles to minimize and eliminate mold growth:
If there is a rubber or plastic ring on the lid of the sippy cup, make sure to pull it out and rinse under it carefully.
Look for sippy cups with solid, one-piece lids, but make sure to clean the spout or drinking straw as well.
All of the cups and parts can be washed in the dishwasher. Make sure that everything is completely dry before reassembling them.
Disposable water bottles should not be reused, not only because of the risk of mold but because the plastic can leach into the water and can be harmful to a child’s health.
Metal water bottles are good because they keep drinks cooler and are easy to sanitize in the dishwasher.
Whenever in doubt over whether mold was completely cleaned from a toy, it is best to be safe and throw it out.
The Critical Role of Local Health Departments
Families with young children should be able to enjoy cooling off in the summer heat risk-free. Unfortunately, many parents and guardians are unaware of the hidden dangers that lurk in the nooks and crannies of their child’s toys. As a result, it is vital that local health departments provide ongoing and visible guidance to highlight the various health risks associated with mold and how to protect their child from exposure. For example, local health officials can disseminate the facts and tips included in this blog via their websites and social media pages, or by engaging in traditional community outreach (e.g., distributing pamphlets, one-pagers).