Tag Archives for " toxins "

Taking precautions: What to do if your home is spared from a fire, but still smells like smoke

Taking precautions: What to do if your home is spared from a fire, but still smells like smoke

We at HypoAir sincerely hope that you and your family have not been forced out of your home by any of the recent wildfires.  Even if your home is spared from fire, if it is in close proximity, danger from lingering smoke particles is a real concern that you should know about and take precautions against.  You may know that smoke is a combination of ultra-fine particles and gasses, both of which can be toxic.  The gasses may be swept away by “airing out” your home or using activated carbon filters, but the particles settle into dust that can be disturbed anytime you clean or even when the HVAC comes on.  

A study was born in the weeks after the Marshall Fire, which occurred in the Boulder area in December 2021.  It spread very quickly and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and buildings.  Those that were near the flames but not burned, like the home of air quality scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, smelled like “the day after a campfire” and had ash on the door and window sills.  (Study finds potentially harmful chemicals lingered in homes affected by Marshall Fire)  Without testing, she did not know whether it was safe for her (or the neighbors who asked) to return to their homes.  So, she became part of a team of expert scientists who tested four homes in the area (including hers) in order to determine what toxins may have been left behind.  

The scientists collected samples of particles of dust in the air and on surfaces in January and February 2022. Elevated concentrations of potentially harmful materials like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were detected in the dust samples.  PAHs are considered carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s chemicals like these that deserve extra precautions in the way residents return to and clean their homes.  

When the scientists set up their equipment in the homes, they took dust samples from windowsills and used monitors to track particulate matter in the air, minute-by-minute.  The floating particles of ash produced by the fire seemed to settle out of the air in these houses within a day or two, but the dust that Wiedinmyer had seen on her windowsills lingered. In February, the researchers took measurements as a six-person cleaning crew entered one of the homes to vacuum and mop.  The concentrations of particles in the air nearly doubled during that time. Overnight in the same house, the team saw airborne particles spike about once every 20 minutes—likely due to the home's HVAC system switching on and off.  (Study finds potentially harmful chemicals lingered in homes affected by Marshall Fire

For this reason, the scientists recommend wearing a mask when you’re cleaning up fire damage, because human activity like cleaning resuspends the dust in the air, making it easy to breathe in.  Also, be sure to change your HVAC filter more frequently during the first few months after cleanup, and only use true HEPA vacuum cleaners, so exhaust from the vacuum cleaner will not blow dust back into the air.  Wiedinmyer herself “aired out” the home for a week before re-entering to clean.  During this time and going forward, a standalone HEPA filter would be very useful to filter particles that are missed by the HVAC system (if you have one!).  Our Germ Defenders, Mobile Air Angels and Whole Home Ionizers help to ionize and agglomerate dust, making it easier for the filters to trap it.

Another part of the aftermath of wildfires is dealing with contamination to drinking water systems. According to NPR for northern Colorado, The fire damaged six public drinking water systems, and toxic chemicals leaked into pipes from damaged homes and into hydrants where low water pressure created vacuums that pulled the compounds into the distribution system.  Although the personnel in these districts were not all clear on how and where to test, they were eager to do so when experts who had managed similar disaster response teams educated them.  Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, has taken part in several water disaster recoveries, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire in California, the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam contamination, and a chemical spill in West Virginia.  In a study he co-authored, he said that although the Marshall Fire response was not perfect, major crisis was averted because authorities did not refuse to test.  (Sadly I think many of us can recall other disasters that did not go so well).

There were a couple reasons that contaminants were introduced into these drinking water systems.  First, when a system loses pressure, toxins like wildfire smoke can get sucked into the distribution system.  Second, overheated plastic pipe can leach benzene and other chemicals for months or even years.  According to Whelton’s research, plastic pipes were primed to leach chemicals by temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit; wildfires can exceed 1,400 degrees.  Thirdly, flushing out the system quickly with clean water is important to prevent smoke and chemicals from reaching damaged pipe, which can act as a reservoir for such toxins.

If your home survives a fire in the future, remember that unseen dangers like carcinogens may still linger and you need to take caution with your air and your drinking water.  Although it seems that authorities in the Boulder area were for the most part very proactive for public health during the Marshall Fire response, it’s usually up to individual residents in wildfire-prone areas to have stores of masks, filters and clean drinking water.  We hope you don’t have to go through such a catastrophe, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

How healthy is dry-cleaning?

How healthy is dry-cleaning?

We’ve all done it–accidentally machine washed and ruined a “dry-clean only” piece.  It’s so frustrating–what happens in the washer and why is dry cleaning “safe” for these items?  According to Rinse, a dry cleaning and laundering service, “Dry Cleaning can be beneficial for garments made from fibers that don’t react well when exposed to water, like silk and wool. It’s also good for garments that shouldn’t be exposed to the heat of a traditional dryer.”  It consists of pre-treatment to stains, washing in a chemical solvent that is free of water, spin-drying, post-washing stain treatment and press, steam or ironing to make all clothing look new again. 

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many kinds of petroleum-based solvents were used to wash clothes, because they remove stains better than soap and water, with less damage to the fabric.  Perchloroethylene (PERC) is one of several non-flammable solvents created to dry-clean during the petroleum shortage created by WWII, and it became the primary solvent used in the 1940’s through the end of the century.  However, it is discovered to be a respiratory and skin irritant, neurotoxicant, liver and kidney toxicant, and reproductive and developmental toxicant, as well as a probable carcinogen. (frontiersin.org)  Dry-cleaning machines using PERC have evolved to a 5th generation, which is a closed loop of washing, drying and recycling the solvent, so that operator and the environmental exposure to PERC is much lower than the 1st generation.  Despite these advances, residuals from the chemical in cleaned clothes and in the waste process are disturbing; the chemical will be outlawed in 2023 in California.   Alternatives range from n-Propyl Bromide (n-PB), which also has toxic effects, to high-flashpoint solvents, to the safest options, liquid carbon dioxide cleaning and Professional Wet Cleaning (PWC).  PWC uses good old water and detergent in a computer-controlled process.

As consumers, the dangers of residual dry-cleaning chemicals in our clothes may not be apparent, but they are there.  PERC vaporizes from clothing and is released into your home, according to a 2011 study.  Concentrations of PERC also increase as the clothing item is dry-cleaned several times, except for silk, which does not retain PERC.  If several dry-cleaned items are left in your car, levels of PERC can rise well above permitted levels by OSHA for workplaces using the chemical.  This suggests that those who deliver dry-cleaned clothing might have more exposure than even those who process it.

In 2021, 90% of dry-cleaning shops in France still use PERC, and estimates in the US may be as low as 65% (vice.com)  Kings County, Washington has been especially proactive in helping cleaners to switch to PWC.  Education on the machines and the process, as well as financial assistance to purchase new PWC machines has been key to the transition.   It’s certainly a looming deadline for California shops, but Minneapolis already forced the transition and became PERC-free in January 2018 (americandrycleaner.com)

Dry-cleaning has been in a slight decline because of the coronavirus pandemic (less in-office work days with less formal dress) and the development of fabrics that can be successfully laundered at home.  Still, if you don’t live in Kings County, WA, California, or Minneapolis, what can you do to reduce your exposure to PERC?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Familiarize yourself with how to hand wash delicate items, and it may eliminate most of your dry cleaning!  Take these tips from Town and Country Magazine.

  • If you do go for dry clean, air the items out of their bags in a ventilated space away from your home, like the open sunshine or in a carport. 

  • Investigate cleaners that use PWC instead of PERC.  Rinse.com is a delivery service that offers laundry, fold and dry-cleaning to areas in California and New York, and states that none of their cleaners use PERC, however not all of them use PWC because they don’t recommend wet cleaning for all items.  It may be a case of calling and asking “I have this item” and “what can/would your shop use to clean it”?

  • Be wise in purchasing new clothes–avoid “Dry Clean Only” when you can.  “Dry Clean Suggested” is a more flexible option, but “Hand Wash” and “Machine Wash” are definitely preferred!