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Protect your health while cleaning up smoke-impacted homes

REMOTE (Jan. 21, 2022): Coloradans cleaning up their homes after the Marshall Fire should continue to protect themselves and their families from chemicals that may be released into the indoor air from smoke-impacted furniture, walls, floors, and other surfaces, but levels of chemicals measured recently do not pose an immediate health risk.

A University of Colorado Boulder research team began conducting indoor air sampling for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in one severely smoke-impacted home about a week after the fire. Preliminary results show that the level of benzene in that home is higher than outdoors, but the indoor measurements have consistently been below the short-term or acute health guideline value of 9 parts per billion for benzene. When windows were opened to improve ventilation, the levels of chemicals went down significantly, but rose again when windows were closed.

“We understand that worrying about chemicals in your home adds to the burden and stress related to the fire and recovery,” said Kristy Richardson, State Toxicologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We want to reassure you that so far the levels of chemicals seen in these measurements do not reflect an immediate health risk. We do need more information about how long benzene and other chemicals might stay at these levels to evaluate the potential for long-term health impacts.” 

Fires create a lot of chemicals that are left behind in ash, soot, and smoke. Scientists often look at levels of benzene and compare them to health guideline values to help understand potential health risks.  Health guideline values protect people because they are far below the level where scientists expect to see health impacts.

The chemicals in smoke-impacted homes will continue to be released into the air in the days and weeks ahead, but they will lessen over time. Thoroughly cleaning your home and following safety precautions will reduce your exposure to chemicals and further protect your health.

People who have health symptoms should refrain from cleaning and contact a health care provider. Symptoms that may be related to exposure to ash or soot include repeated coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, headaches and nausea or unusual fatigue or lightheadedness. Some of these symptoms also could indicate a COVID-19 infection, so people who may have been exposed to the virus should get tested.

 

The CU team still is monitoring the air in the severely smoke-impacted home and is working to analyze the data it collected at this and a limited number of other homes that were less impacted. The goal of CU’s sampling is to understand what people are exposed to in the aftermath of a fire, for how long these levels last, and what actions can help reduce exposure.

Protect your health when cleaning up your home

  • Wear a well-fitted NIOSH-certified mask or respirator (such as an N-95 mask or more protective respirator). 

  • Wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes and socks to avoid skin contact with ash or debris. If you get ash on your skin, in your eyes, or in your mouth, wash it off as soon as you can.

  • Avoid cleanup activities if you have heart or lung disease (including asthma), are an older adult, or are pregnant.

  • Keep children and pets away from ash and cleanup activities. 

Tips for cleaning your home to reduce chemicals and odors

  • When possible, air out your indoor spaces by opening windows and doors. If there is a lot of ash and debris outside your home, air out your home after debris has been cleaned up, and use air cleaners in the meantime.

  • CDPHE recommends air cleaners with HEPA filters for particles and activated carbon filters for volatile organic compounds such as benzene. 

    • Keep air cleaners on until the smells go away. 

    • Do not use ozone generators in occupied homes. Ozone is toxic to breathe, and using one of these devices in the home can create a potential health risk. High ozone levels also can damage plants and materials such as paints, rubber, other natural materials, electrical wire coatings, fabrics, and artwork.

    • If you do use an ozone generator in an unoccupied space, be sure to thoroughly air out the space (at least four hours) before re-entering. 

  • Deep clean the surfaces of your home.

    • Vacuum floors/carpet/rugs, drapes, and furniture using HEPA-type vacuum cleaner, or steam clean these surfaces.

    • Avoid actions that can stir up particles, such as dry sweeping and dusting. Before sweeping hard surfaces, mist them with water to keep dust down.

    • Do not use harsh chemical cleaners or vinegar as they can react with chemicals in the ash. Soap and water are adequate to clean ash from hard surfaces.

For more information about indoor air quality after a fire, visit https://cdphe.colorado.gov/iaq-fires

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