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NIOSH: Controlled fire study finds high levels of airborne chemicals

Synthetic materials in today’s homes burn faster, hotter, produce more toxic smoke

Posted September 26, 2018

In an effort to better understand the risks of exposure to hazardous air emissions involved with residential firefighting, where synthetic materials like plastic, foam, and polyester are prevalent, NIOSH investigators and university and industry partners measured hazardous air emissions during different stages of firefighting. Twelve separate fires were set in controlled settings to simulate residential firefighting conditions.

Air samples were collected for several chemicals, including benzene and other volatile organic compounds, poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and hydrogen cyanide. Air was tested from inside the structure during active fire and after fire suppression, and outside the structure near exterior crew members. Personal air measurements also were taken from workers in those areas.

The study found median personal air measurements collected from interior crew members were substantially higher than the recommended exposure limits for short-term exposure for the chemicals measured. Outside air measurements downwind of the fire also were higher than naturally occurring levels, and investigators say this highlights the importance of wearing self-contained breathing apparatus or establishing a command center upwind of a fire.

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