Wildfire Smoke Damage Assessments

Posted by mpolkabla On November - 16 - 2018

The devastating wildfires of 2018 have impacted many communities in both Northern and Southern California. As of this date, the fires have burned tens of thousands of acres and have destroyed thousands of homes and structures, killing many in it’s path of destruction. Due to the changing wind patterns and the varying topography of the affected areas, the resultant smoke from these uncontrolled wildfires has also traveled throughout adjacent communities and regions affecting workplaces as well as residences within a large geographic area lying both within and outside the immediate physical fire damaged areas caused by the destructive forces of the noted fires.

It is recognized that smoke associated with wildfires, particularly those involving the destruction of buildings and residential materials, are capable of releasing a variety of toxic airborne chemical contaminants that are present within the visible (and invisible) smoke emissions. Such contaminants recognized to be commonly present within smoke plumes are broadly characterized with respect to their harmful characteristics and include both volatile and semi-volatile gasses, vapors, and aerosols, as well as airborne and settled smoke particulates known generally as soot, char, and ash. These smoke and smoke-related residues are known to be capable of producing a wide variety of physical damages as well as unique health hazards within affected areas and populations if not properly controlled and mitigated. Common adverse impacts and related health-based concerns associated with wildfires include both physical and chemical damages caused from a number of fire and smoke-related impacts and residual compounds including: settled soot, char, and ash residues; persistent “smoke” odors within (and on) surfaces and materials; physical corrosion and damages to surfaces from settled soot, char, and ash; adverse health effects experienced by residents from breathing smoke and related residues; and even residual chemical and even microbial (mold) contamination to properties within water and soils impacted by such contaminants.

The chemical and physical composition of smoke generated during a wildfire event is recognized to be generally dependent on the type of fuel in which the fire consumes (such as grasses, trees, building structures, etc.) and results in the generation and release of a wide variety of contaminant materials and compounds which become airborne during combustion and are transmitted, and deposited within and surrounding the impacted areas. During a typical wildfire incident, such as with the recent California wildfires of 2017 and 2018, it was documented that the smoke emissions traveled from active fire (burning) areas to the cooler relative temperatures present outside the immediate fire impacted areas. In these adjacent areas, the smoke residues (containing airborne particulates and gasses) then generally condensed out of the air and deposited onto nearby surfaces, as contamination in the form of soot, char, ash, and other toxic compounds. Upon contact with impacted surfaces, these chemicals and particulates present within the smoke plumes could then also migrate into homes and accumulate and/or absorb onto interior materials (especially those exposed materials which are porous) within residences and structures such as fabric, wood, and carpets. It is understood that the corrosive properties of the smoke related ash components are also known to potentially cause future degradation of surfaces they contact based on the chemical reactions that occur and elevated pH (relative corrosivity) associated with the newly deposited ash. Such damages are known to be particularly problematic within electronic components and equipment as well as fabrics ,which may be adversely impacted from these smoke related residues if not removed and/or mitigated.

pH testing of contaminated surfaces…

The potential long term physical and structural damages resulting from surfaces and materials impacted by smoke residues can vary greatly. Impacts are generally understood to include discoloration and damage to surfaces as well as the resultant persistent odors (which may linger weeks or even months after the immediate hazard of the fire) and resultant exposure to the smoke plume. Symptoms and adverse health effects experienced by those directly and indirectly exposed to (even low levels) of airborne and surface smoke contaminant residues generally include coughing, nausea, headaches, respiratory function degradation, as well as an overall sensitivity and “annoyance” associated with exposure to smoke related contaminants and residues. It is understood that the lingering smoke odors generally persist as a result of small microscopic particles and residues that cling to the available exposed surfaces and materials. Although the smoke odors (generally caused by volatile organic compounds, or “VOCs”) will usually subside over time, the physical damage and health effects caused by the residue particulate contaminants and residues may continue if not removed and/or treated through the performance of specific cleaning procedures. In fact, it is understood that these residue contaminants, if left unabated, have the potential to impact the health of individuals exposed well after the fire is suppressed and the smoke related “odors” have subsided. It is believed that this is due to the wide variety of chemical compounds commonly present within wildfire smoke emissions and resultant residues. In fact, many of these chemicals have been shown to exhibit adverse chemical toxicity and some have even been recognized by regulatory agencies (such as the US Environmental Protection Agency to have the potential to cause cancer and/or other reproductive harm.

Dust residue sampling using microvacuum sampling methods…

In fact, a consensus of fire residue experts and Certified industrial hygienists (CIHs) agree, that physical smoke residue damages can be difficult to identify simply through visual deposits and/or the presence of characteristic “smoke-like” odors. This is why verification of smoke residue contamination can only be conclusively determined (and quantified/measured) through the performance of technical sampling, analysis, and evaluation of smoke residue indicators such as soot, char, and ash residues and through the professional review of findings. Such assessment and evaluation is regularly performed by BioMax following wildfire incidents. It is also understood that there are currently no established regulatory limits regarding the presence and/or levels of allowable smoke residues (such as soot, char, and ash) identified on surfaces within residences and/or structures impacted by wildfire events. General industry guidelines available with respect to these types of incidents are also limited, and the majority of peer reviewed studies and guidance information only relates to the time of incident exposure potential (such as smoke inhalation during a fire) rather than residual/post-event exposure. For these reasons, recognized regulatory authorities and experts such as the U.S. EPA and professional organizations such the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) widely endorse evaluating and assessing potentially impacted areas of concern using experienced experts such as a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) where potential smoke residue impacts have occurred and are of concern. Such professional third-party evaluations are intended to consistently assess all applicable site conditions in total (including available analytical data) and to develop and perform an appropriate sampling and analysis evaluation to review all information and relevant findings. It is recognized that only after all of these factors have been considered and reviewed, the CIH will then have the ability to make a professional determination relative to the best approach in developing and implementing appropriate mitigating procedures as necessary based on review of site conditions, observations, and analytical sample findings.

If you have concerns regarding wildfire smoke emissions and/or have been impacted by these potentially toxic contaminants, we are here to help! Since 1996, BioMax Environmental, Inc. has assisted our private and public clients with environmental compliance and industrial hygiene services throughout California and the western United States. Our professionals are considered as the leading technical experts in the assessment and evaluation of smoke residue damages and development of appropriate cleanup and mitigative procedures to remove these contaminants. Please feel free to contact us for a consultation or to schedule us to assess your property or residence. BioMax is here to help.

Sampling for microbial (mold) growth resultant from ash deposits on a rooftop…