The most commonly downplayed effects of fires in homes and business establishments is in the general health condition of the people who come in contact with the remnants of the fiery event. Not only is there damage and destruction to property and valuable belongings, the person who comes in contact with smoke and fumes from a burned structure is greatly predisposed to developing a variety of health problems. Although these health problems may not be immediately seen nor felt, in due time and with the interplay of other aggravating factors such as the person’s diet, immune system functioning, and overall skin integrity, clinical manifestations will present. By this time, any preventive measures will be for naught and treatment modalities will be a costly affair to begin with.
The Anatomy of Fire and Smoke
Fire occurs because of three fundamental elements that include air or oxygen, fuel or energy, and heat. Removing any of these elements and you can never start a fire, not even an ember. So, to start a fire, a highly combustible material must get in contact oxygen in the atmosphere to initiate a series of chemical reaction that, upon the application or introduction of the third element which is heat, fire is produced. Now, so long as there is a ready supply of combustible material vis-à-vis fuel load and a steady presence of oxygen in the atmosphere fire continue to exist because as oxygen and the combustible material react, they tend to give off heat, raising the heat element some more and fueling the fiery process in a vicious cycle.
In the birth of a fire, a heating element such as a match, a lighted candle, an electrical spark, or even friction, heats the combustible fuel load to very high temperatures, well within what is known as the material’s ignition temperature. By the time the combustible materials reaches around 150o Celsius (or 300o Fahrenheit), the heat already begins decomposing some of the cellulose that is found in the fuel load. The resulting chemical reaction releases unstable and explosive gases into the air which form what we see and are known to us as smoke. Smoke is primarily composed of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon molecules. The materials that remain after the volatile gases have been released into the air as smoke make up the hardly recognizable char, as in “charcoal” which is made up of almost pure carbon. The combustible material which is left unburned or not turned into gas is called the ash and includes minerals such as calcium, potassium, chlorine, magnesium, and others. As such, charcoal fire can burn without the smoke as we usually use in our weekend barbecue activities.
When the burned materials or fuel load are not consumed completely, a black residue made up of impure carbon particles, known as soot, is formed. Soot is almost always present in materials that have hydrocarbons in their molecular structure and as such is ever-present in everyday things and the environment around us. Although there are commercial uses of soot such as pigments for lampblacks and carbon blacks found in the color of rubber tires and toners for photocopy machines and laser printers, soot is an airborne contaminant that comes from a variety of sources but may always be the product of fires.
Soot is considered a particulate matter which is a microscopic particle that is deemed dangerous or hazardous to one’s health especially when it gets to the person’s respiratory system. Generally, individual soot particulates are less than five micrometers in diameter making them relatively unfiltered by the ciliated epithelium of the nasopharyngeal and tracheobronchial airways. Once these particulates find their way into the person’s alveoli, they dissolve into the bloodstream and get carried into the different tissues of the body where it awaits the accumulation of significant levels in order to effect a pathologic reaction.
One major health effect of soot, especially its gaseous phase, is the production of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which have been studied to cause mutation of a select group of genes, some of which can cause a variety of child birth defects, and have been tagged as a possible human cancer-causing agent.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs are composed of over 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of combustible materials and other organic substances. In controlled laboratory experiments, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were shown to produce fertility problems among laboratory mice. The offspring of the lab mice also showed significantly greater rates of birth defects and low birth weights.
The same studies also revealed that some analogs of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons caused skin problems, body fluid abnormalities, and immune system defects among laboratory specimens. However, the implications are not readily generalizable to the human population because of ethics in research on human subjects.
Whether or not soot has really carcinogenic, mutagenic, and or even teratogenic effects on humans, it is relatively safe to assume that this byproduct of smoke from fires is something that should not be taken very lightly.
Remember that these molecules are so tiny that they can get through the body’s first line of defenses against microorganismic invasion such as ciliated epithelial coverings of the skin and mucous membranes that line various cavities of the body. Normally the human body is equipped with a defense network of microscopic structures that either trap foreign bodies or engulf them and render them harmless to the human body. At other times, some chemicals found in human blood chemically react with these harmful molecules such that they do not interfere with normal physiologic processes of the body. However, there are certain situations when the body is overwhelmed by the sheer number if invading foreign bodies that clinical manifestations begin to crop up.
A fire-ravaged house will often leave behind a lot of harmful gaseous molecules that can travel all the way into your lungs or your family’s. This can exacerbate any asthma conditions that you or any of your family members have and may predispose you to other respiratory problems such as croup and bronchiolitis among the very young; chronic obstructive respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema among adults; and pneumonitis, interstitial lung disorder, and pneumonia.
It is almost always possible that small fires can occur right in the very confines of our homes brought about by any of, but not limited to, the following causes: a left open gas stove, leaking gas or fuel hoses, embers from cigars and cigarettes, and overheating appliances, among others. What makes smoke damage cleanup an intimidating task is that smoke and soot can move and penetrate into other rooms or areas of the house while flames from fires can greatly affect the paint of walls, furniture, and fixtures, carpet, upholstery, drapes, clothing, and other family articles which further adds to the extent of the damage.
Smoke damages the very complex structural network of fibers that strengthens and or solidifies a certain object by chemically reacting with the different molecules that make up the structure. What happens is that the molecular and chemical bonds between the various elements and molecules are broken down into component parts, rendering them unstable in the outside environment. Sometimes, smoke damaged articles still retain a certain amount of heat such that the burning process continues to damage and or weaken the structure and form of the article affected.
It is clearly one thing to know how smoke and soot can damage not only your properties but your general health as well, what is more important is what you need to do next. And no matter how complex the task of smoke damage cleanup may be, here are a few suggestions on how you can simplify the process.
· For soft materials such as clothing, fabrics, and upholstery you can use a power vacuum to remove the soot from the affected articles. Keep in mind to use only the most powerful vacuum and to cover the cleaned up article immediately so that it will not get re-soiled during the entire cleaning process.
· For carpets, you can hire a professional carpet cleaner only after you have restored your carpet yourself. You can also rent a rotary scrubber or an extraction machine from your local tool rental shop to help you with either wet cleaning or injection cleaning of your carpet.
· Remember that it may be necessary to wash fabrics and clothing to completely remove the soot and odor brought about by the smoke. Try to soak the articles overnight in a solution with deodorizers before machine washing them the following day.
· If soot has permeated through porous hard surfaces, you can use a dry chemical sponge to scrub off the soot and then spraying the surfaces with a chemical cleaning solution. Make sure to dry the surface properly and well before applying any deodorizing agent.
· For less porous hard surfaces, you can try to make some changes in the concentration of the chemical cleaning solutions you have used for cleaning porous hard surfaces.