What You Should Know about Fires

About Smoke from Fires and Exposure

All smoke is hazardous to breathe. Smoke is a mix of particles and chemicals produced by incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials. The same pollutants that are found in smoke from fires are commonly found in the air from sources such as vehicles, power plants, factories, incinerators, restaurants, and wood stoves. A major difference between pollutants released to air from these sources and smoke from fires is that smoke from fires is often more concentrated and poses more of an immediate, short-term health concern to someone breathing it.

About Fire Response

First responders, such as fire departments, have the expertise to put out fires and, when necessary, to direct people to take actions to reduce exposures from fire and smoke. Health departments usually don't have a role in putting out fires, although they do routinely advise people to avoid breathing smoke from any kind of fire. When there are unique concerns about chemicals or other substances on the site of the fire, health departments may be called upon to advise first responders and the general public about potential public health hazards and actions that can be taken to reduce people's exposures. Health Departments also advise people who think they may be experiencing health symptoms from smoke exposure to contact their primary health care provider.

About Environmental Testing During and After a Fire

People sometimes have questions about what chemicals are being released to the air during a fire and what might be in the soot and ash after a fire. These questions often lead to requests for testing (e.g., air, water, soil sampling).

In most cases, the chemicals released by any fire are very similar. For example, virtually any fire will result in the release of large amounts of particulate matter and carbon monoxide, as well as varying amounts of volatile organic chemicals (such as benzene), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metals and other chemicals. Testing to look for the presence of these chemicals or their levels is not necessary. Results from environmental tests are rarely needed to inform the actions people should take to avoid being exposed to smoke because smoke is known to be toxic and people should avoid breathing it. Also, environmental testing is rarely needed to help to direct cleanup efforts or to determine whether a building may be reoccupied. Proper clean-up of smoke and soot residue will remove fire-related compounds so that continuing exposures would no longer be an issue. Environmental testing of chemicals in smoke is also not likely to help to determine appropriate medical treatment for people who experience health symptoms caused by breathing smoke.

However, there are some unique situations where environmental testing might be warranted. In these cases, first responders, health and environmental agencies, and others would identify information needed, objectives, and testing methods to provide clear, meaningful results. For example:

  • Air sampling with real-time instruments may be performed by fire fighters to help guide urgent decisions, such as where to establish evacuation boundaries or what personal protective equipment should be worn by fire fighters.
  • Air sampling during long-duration fires (e.g., fires lasting days to weeks) may help to understand the significance of health risks from the longer-term exposures people may experience, and where those exposures may be occurring.
  • Sampling of air and other media after fires that cause the release of large amounts of specific chemicals may help to guide any necessary post-fire cleanup decisions.

When environmental testing is necessary, it is usually done for specific, fire-related chemicals and a comprehensive sampling plan is developed so that results are reliable and informative. Any environmental samples must be analyzed by a laboratory certified by the New York State Department of Health Environmental Laboratory Approval Program (ELAP). Collecting just a few environmental "grab" samples without having a sampling plan often produces uncertain results that don't help decision-making.

What to Expect and Do During and After a Fire

  • People might experience health symptoms from smoke, heat, fire and odors associated with the fire, even when visible smoke may not be present.
  • People near the fire should follow the advice of first responders. In some cases, evacuation boundaries will be announced and people will be given instructions on where to go during the event. In other cases, people may be advised to "shelter in place" (i.e., remain at home and keep doors and windows closed).
  • People should also take actions to reduce their exposure to smoke. For example, during a fire, the doors and windows of nearby residences and other buildings should remain closed to prevent smoke from entering, and air conditioners should be turned off.
  • After a fire is completely put out, buildings affected by smoke should be ventilated with fresh air to reduce odors. This may be a slow process depending on how much of the building was affected by smoke. If smoke damage was substantial, carpeting and other porous building materials can continue to off-gas residual smoke chemicals for some time. Buildings damaged by fire and smoke will also likely have significant damage from water used to extinguish the fire. In most cases, efforts to clean and repair these buildings should be performed by professional fire restoration companies.
  • Buildings where a fire occurred will be subject to inspection by local fire and building code officials after the fire is controlled and extinguished. Nearby buildings also may need to be inspected by local fire and building code officials. These officials will evaluate the affected buildings' structural integrity and whether they may be reoccupied.

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