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Occupational hazards with fire debris cleanup

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Once extinguished, fire debris cleanup poses several safety and health risks for workers.[1] Asbestos is still quite commonly found in older buildings, which has well known health risks, but there are also risks from degraded roofing tiles, melted metals and electronics, as well as the sooty residues from burnt materials. Silica, one of the most common elements on earth, can also cause adverse health consequences if inhaled.

Safety hazards[edit]

Safety hazards of fire cleanup include the risk of fire, as smoldering debris can reignite. Other safety hazards for fire cleanup include the risk of electrocution from downed electrical lines or in instances where water has come into contact with electrical equipment. Structures that have been burned are sometimes unstable and are at risk of sudden collapse.[2][3]

Health hazards[edit]

Burned residential areas may contain crystalline silica, asbestos, metals, or polyaromatic hydrocarbons.


Silica, or silicon dioxide, can occur in a crystalline or noncrystalline (amorphous) form. In fire debris, silica can be found in concrete, roofing tiles, or it may be a naturally occurring element in the rocks and soil of the burnt out areas. Occupational exposures silica can cause silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, airway diseases, and some additional non-respiratory diseases.[4] The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for silica is 50 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) as an 8-hour Time Weighted Average (TWA). These limits are intended to reduce the risk of developing adverse health effects.[5]


Asbestos was frequently used in building material in the past. It is a name given to a group of six different fibrous minerals (amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and the fibrous varieties of tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite). Inhalation of asbestos can result in various diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The OSHA PEL for airborne asbestos is determined by Phase Contrast Microscopy and is set at 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter (f/cc) for fibers greater than 5 μm in length and an aspect ratio (length to width) greater than or equal to 3:1 [29 CFR 1910.1001].


In fire debris clean up, sources of metals exposure include burnt or melted electronics, cars, refrigerators, stoves, etc. These metals can melt and be found in residential fire debris.[1] Fire debris cleanup workers may be exposed to these metals in the air or on their skin. These metals include beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel, and many more.

Polyaromatic hydrocarbons[edit]

Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are carcinogenic, come from the incomplete combustion of matter and are often found as a result of structural and wildland fires [IARC 2002].


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Evaluation of fire debris cleanup employees' exposure to silica, asbestos, metals, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons" (PDF). August 2019. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  2. "Worker Safety and Health During Fire Cleanup". State of California Department of Industrial Relations. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  3. "Worker Safety During Fire Cleanup". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 December 2012. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  4. "NIOSH hazard review: health effects of occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica". 2017-05-13. doi:10.26616/NIOSHPUB2002129.
  5. "CDC - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards (NPG)". www.cdc.gov. 2018-10-18. Retrieved 2020-02-11.

External links[edit]

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