Toxic exposures in structural fire environments can endanger adjusters


After a structural fire, adjusters are often on site within 24 hours to meet with their policyholders, assess the damage and begin writing their repair estimates. However, what most real estate adjusters don’t realize is that fire damaged structures are extremely dangerous environments.

Although the flames have been extinguished, the smoke has cleared and firefighters have removed the yellow warning tape, the scene of the fire is not as safe as one might think. The toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) created by the wide variety of materials and products burned are in a gassed state, saturating the indoor air with toxic gases and particles. The combination of the lack of ventilation after cladding and the toxicity of combustion by-products created by the fire, classifies this environment as immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that there is a respiratory risk when a toxic contaminant is present in the air in a concentration sufficient to cause harm when inhaled. Damage can occur immediately, or it may take days, weeks, months or years for effects to appear.

The types and amounts of materials and products that burn, their chemical reactions, heat, weather and other factors make every post-fire environment unique. The wide range of toxic chemicals, VOCs and particulates is unlimited and their exposure can have immediate and / or long-term health effects. Firefighters and cause-and-origin investigators are all too familiar with the dangers of post-fire environments, and many are sick and die each year from exposure to smoke and soot toxins.

An example of this happened when a California fire chief walked through a residential fire to assess the damage. Soon after, while returning to the fire station, he fell ill and his assistant transported him to a local hospital. The Hazardous Materials Response Team was called to the scene and located several glass containers of a substance later identified as liquid sodium cyanide. The chief was then transported to a medical facility equipped with a hyperbaric chamber for treatment and fully recovered. Doctors and investigators ultimately determined that he inhaled near-fatal doses of sodium cyanide from a home-operated jewelry finishing business. (1)

Insurance adjusters face similar dangers in post-structure fires, where they can spend days documenting loss, estimating and taking inventory of personal property while completely ignoring the toxic chemicals to which they are exposed or being exposed. wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.

Smoke, toxic gases and chemicals

Since cigarette smoke alone contains more than 5,000 chemicals, 70 of which are identified as carcinogens, the products and materials that burn in a structural fire produce countless toxins. These products can include plastics, fiberglass, synthetic fabrics, flame retardants, electronics, pesticides, household cleaning products, automotive fluids, solvents, chemicals used to make drugs. illicit drugs and a host of other toxic substances. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency has over 85,000 chemicals listed in its inventory of substances that fall under the Toxic Substance Control Act, and approximately 2,000 new chemicals are introduced each year. (2) The Chemical Abstracts Service is the world’s authority on chemical information and has more than 100 million chemicals registered in its registry. (3) These chemicals are combined in over 7,000,000 formulations of blends that are found in homes and buildings across the United States. (4) The majority of chemicals currently in commercial use have not been evaluated.(5)

Some of the more toxic chemicals and gases found in smoke include: hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, dioxins, furans, sulfur dioxide, PCBs, hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, and arsenic. Other toxins can include benzene, lead, chromium and other metals, toluene, acrolein, mercury, formaldehyde, phenol, styrene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

To give you an idea of ​​the toxicity of some of these chemicals, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide were used during WWI as chemical warfare agents, killing thousands. Hydrogen cyanide and phosgene are commonly found in structural fire smoke.

Dioxins – the worst of the worst

Insurance adjusters are well aware of common hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead and mold, but few realize how toxic smoke particles and soot can be. Dioxins, especially 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), have been called the most toxic man-made compound on Earth. (6) Scientists say it is only exceeded in toxicity by radioactive waste.(7) Certain dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) with similar toxic properties are also included under the term dioxins.(8) A characterization by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer causing potential has rated dioxin as more than 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic and a million or more times more than all the rest. (9)TCDD has also been extensively studied for the health effects associated with its presence as an ingredient in Agent Orange, which was used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.(ten) Dioxins are formed when products containing carbon and chlorine are burned, such as plastics containing PVC. (11)

Even in picograms (parts per trillion), dioxin is associated with serious health damage that can shorten the lives of those exposed to it, and potentially that of their offspring and future generations. Genetic effects can skip a generation and reappear in subsequent generations. (12) Ingestion of dioxin can also lead to birth defects and slow wasting syndrome followed by death similar to AIDS syndrome. It is strongly suspected to contribute to the pathology of the urinary and hematologic systems, colon growths, gallbladder complications, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the lung, larynx and prostate. According to researcher Joe Thornton, “The health effects of dioxin include endocrine disruption, reproductive harm, infertility, birth defects, impaired neurodevelopment, kidney damage and metabolic dysfunction… none of the above. these effects will only occur… ”Dioxin is linked to so many diseases as it intensifies cancers caused by other toxins.

Particulate exposure

Exposure to particulate matter causes approximately 20,000 premature deaths in America each year. Inhaled particles smaller than 5 microns travel to the lower lung where gas exchange occurs in the alveoli. The size of the soot particles is around 2.5 microns or less and to give an idea of ​​the size of these particles, a red blood cell is around 7 microns.

The smallest ultrafine particles are so tiny that they behave like gases, passing through the lungs and directly into the bloodstream. Ultrafine particles also travel up through the nose, and rather than traveling down to the lungs, they travel directly to the brain and central nervous system via the olfactory nerve, bypassing the body’s protective blood-brain barrier. Once in the bloodstream, these particles carry toxins throughout the body where they promote inflammation, disease and even death.

Smoke particles – approx. 2.5 microns
Red blood cells – approx. 7 microns
Security considerations

The importance of wearing proper protective equipment when working in or around fire debris or a fire damaged structure cannot be understated. Insurance adjusters and claims staff should consider the following safety tips:

  • Establish a safety and site assessment protocol to determine what type of PPE should be worn. The highest level of respiratory protection should be taken into account.
  • Have all claims personnel tested for fit to ensure their respirators are functioning properly.
  • Sample the air, VOCs and surfaces to determine what types and amounts of hazardous chemicals may be present. (See OSHA regulation 1910.134 (d) (1) (iii)
  • Obtain a soot and particulate removal protocol that details the appropriate cleaning and / or decontamination steps.
  • Ventilate closed areas unless this puts others at risk to health.
  • If you experience any adverse health symptoms from exposure to smoke odors or soot, seek medical attention immediately.

The references:


(2) It Could Take EPA Centuries To Test All Unregulated Chemicals Under Historic New Bill By Mark Scialla: -could-take-centuries-for-epa- to-test-all-un-regulated-chemicals-in-a-new-historic-bill


(4) Characterization of Fire Investigator Exposure During Fire Scene Examination By: Dennis L. Rogers – DuPage County Arson Task Force (page 19)



(7) Medical effects: Dioxins and PCBs from wood combustion

(8) World Health Organization

(9) A guide to living without plastic

(10) Dioxins and their effects on human health

(11) Dioxins produced by Backyard Burning


(12) The Aspen Institute

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