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Maintaining Healthy Indoor Air Quality During Fire Season

by / Monday, 02 December 2019 / Published in Environmental Testing, Healthy Building Inspections & Testing

Smoke from Paramount Ranch, destroyed by the Woolsey Fire 2019

I’ve lived in California for over 30 years. Most of that time I never really thought about wildfires; their destructive flames seemed only possible in the movies. That has changed, not just for me, but for most Californians, who have become brutally aware of the very real threat wildfire poses.

While fire itself is by far the most destructive part of wildfires the smoke they create can have far worse consequences on our health.

The hundreds of chemical reactions that take place during and after a fire release not only particulate matter, but chemical compounds through the form of smoke into the air we breathe. Once in the air, both particulate matter and chemical compounds can seep into your building materials and affect air quality if not properly cleaned after the fire.

Most often the part of smoke that immediately draws our attention and concern is soot, char, and ash, or particulate matter that is easiest to see with the naked eye.

However, the hundreds of chemical compounds released in reactions caused by wildfire and carried by smoke can lead to both short-term and chronic health problems. Some of these chemicals, those highly reactive and volatile, will dissipate quickly and are not a concern for long term contamination; other chemicals carried by wildfire smoke can linger for weeks, months and even years, and can cause or amplify existing health problems.

How to Deal with Poor Air Quality Caused by Wildfires

Most of us have at least been around a campfire, or have experienced wildfires first hand, and know how irritating and noxious the smoke can be.
If you are unable to leave a smoke contaminated area there are several things you can do to help mitigate the detrimental effects wildfire smoke may have on your health.

Personal Protection

If you wish to protect yourself by wearing a mask, make sure the mask you are using has a filter rating that can handle smoke, something we covered in-depth in a previous blog post, Bay Area Wildfire Smoke and Indoor Air Quality. Below are some masks we recommend:

Traveling into the Woolsey Fire

N95 Particulate Respirator Mask with Breathing Valve is an inexpensive option.
Amston N99 Model 1802 Protective Dust Mask with Exhalation Valve provides better filtration for a few additional dollars.
GVS SPR467 Elipse OV-P100 Dust and Organic Vapour Half Mask Respirator are what we prefer to use; the additional cost can be considered an investment in your long term health.

Indoor Air Quality Protection

Maintaining healthy air quality is not only a great practice during fire season but a great way to maintain your health and happiness year-round. When outdoor air pollution levels are low it’s a great idea to open up as many windows and doors as possible to let the building breathe. During fire season however, outdoor air pollution levels will likely be high, and we recommend using in-room HEPA filters to improve your indoor air quality.

IQAir [HealthPro Plus Air Purifier] Medical-Grade Air [HyperHEPA Filter] - Allergies, Pets, Asthma, Odors, Smoke, Pollen, Dust; Swiss Made

IQAir HealthPro Plus Air Purifier

Whirlpool Whispure Air Purifier WP500: This is the model that several of our inspectors personally use. We often refer to this as the “Toyota Camry” of HEPA filters. It’s not the fanciest but is our go-to workhorse.

HealthPro Plus Air Purifier: from IQAir is what we recommend to our clients with extreme sensitivities or medical conditions. We affectionately refer to this as the “Rolls Royce” of HEPA filters; it’s not only dependable but has all the bells and whistles anyone could need.

You can also make inexpensive but effective air filters at home by combining your standard box fan with a 20-inch x 20-inch x 1-inch MERV 13 filter and some duct tape, we show you how here.

Car Protection

While often a second thought, protecting and/or improving the air quality in our cars has become more important as our commutes grow longer. This can be even more important when your family is fleeing from a fire. Automotive manufacturers are beginning to take cabin air quality seriously, and while Tesla’s Bioweapon defense feature may seem like over-kill to some, it has already proven itself against California’s wildfires (Watch Tesla with ‘Bioweapon Defense’ air system drive through wildfires).
If you don’t drive a Tesla, however, there are several air filters you can get to keep you and your family healthy and happy while traveling in your vehicle.
Have your in-car air filter changed regularly; daily driving on our polluted highways is enough to clog these filters, let alone particulate matter from a wildfire.
Queenty’s HEPA Car Air Purifier is great if you are on a budget.
IQ Air’s Atem Car Air Purifier is our preferred in-car filter; IQ air is one of the most reputable air filter manufacturers on the market and this model fits neatly on the back of a headrest.

Assessing the Post Fire Damage

Did smoke damage your building? When assessing any sort of wildfire or smoke damage, one of the most difficult parts is determining the level of residue left behind by the fire and smoke. It’s easy to spot visual traces of smoke damage in particulate matter residues like soot, char, and ash on surfaces. Even when visible residues are absent however, you may still have a smoky smell or residual chemical compounds that can cause burning eyes, irritated sinus, and difficulty breathing.

There are two primary concerns with fire and smoke residue:

Has the fire or smoke residue been removed to an acceptable level?
Are there any health or exposure concerns with any remaining traces?

The length of time you and your building are exposed to post-fire contamination is largely reliant on two things, environmental conditions (how long did the fire burn) and proper post-fire cleaning (how effective was clean up after the fire).

You would be amazed at how devastating smoke damage can be!

If you are filing a smoke-related insurance claim, insurance companies oftentimes require proof of the damage. The sooner we test for smoke damage the more likely we can provide your insurance company with the type of testing and data needed to move your claim forward. They usually require some form of soot analysis such as PLM/SEM/TEM and combustion by-product analysis. It may also be beneficial to perform soil analysis testing for asbestos (Asbestos: PLM and TEM) and settled heavy metals (CAM 17 Metals).

Post Fire Building Care Tips

After wildfire smoke has cleared, properly ventilating your building is a great way to improve indoor air quality. Ventilation decreases the chemical composition of the existing air by bringing in clean fresh air. High temperatures and humidity in spring and summer months can increase the off-gassing of chemicals trapped in building materials causing  smokey odors in buildings which may not been properly cleaned.

Next, do a detailed deep cleaning (dry wipe, wet wipe, and HEPA Vacuum everything). We recommend 7th Generation dish soap and chem sponges to clean surfaces. Use a HEPA vacuum like the Miele Compact C2. If you haven’t already, begin running portable HEPA filters referenced earlier in this article.

If you feel the deep cleaning was adequate but are still experiencing adverse effects to your health, you can call us in to perform VOC testing to help determine whether you need remediation to remove building materials that have absorbed chemicals and odors released by the wildfire. This may be as simple as collecting air samples, collecting surface samples using wipes, or as minimally invasive as sending material samples to the lab.

Once we receive the results from the lab we can determine if your building or home was damaged by wildfire smoke, whether the building materials absorbed chemicals, how much they are off-gassing, and what kind of gasses and contaminants are present. We can also help you develop a plan to begin the remediation process and recommend quality remediation contractors. Once the contractor has removed all the damaged material, we recommend repeating the previous sampling to determine if remediation has been successful.

We hope you found this article informative and leave here with the information you need to better protect your health and that of your building or home. If you have questions or would like to spark up a lively debate about methods described here feel free to get in touch with us!

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