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The risks with smoke and soot; why house fires need professional cleaning

The NZ Fire Service attend about 5,000 house fires each year. While some of these destroy the entire house, most require repairs and a thorough clean. But is a wipe-down enough?

A house fire is an incredibly stressful experience. There’s so much to deal with; loss of possessions, damage to the home from soot and water, and often an insurance claim to try and work through too. It might be tempting to just quickly wash things down, remove the grime, soot and smoke as quickly as possible, and get back in your home. But there are huge health risks if you don’t clean up properly.

What is smoke and soot?

Smoke is the outcome of incomplete combustion by fire. This creates tiny carbon particles which float in the air. When these particles fall, they become soot.

Especially in a house fire, smoke is a complex mix of particles and toxic gases, created from whatever has burned in the house fire. Any standard house fire can produce tens of thousands of toxic fumes and chemicals.

Think about what burns in a fire; plastics, wall linings, dyed fabrics, cleaning fluids, paint, foam in furniture, timber, and metal. Everything is made from chemicals and burning them often makes them carcinogenic.

Smoke and soot can contain:

  • Asbestos fibres, which are known to cause mesothelioma cancer.
  • Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, tar, and ammonia
  • Sulphur can form sulphur dioxide, thiols, and hydrogen sulphide
  • Burning PVC can create halocarbons, bromomethane, chloromethane, hydrogen chloride and phosgene
  • Other toxic chemicals when inhaled include formaldehyde, ketones, acrolein, furfural, and carboxylic acids.

It’s not just a house fire that can cause toxic soot build-up either. Smoking inside releases 7,000 chemicals, with 70 of them being linked to cancer. If you have a wood fire, that emits smoke that contains 100 chemicals that are also found in cigarette smoke. Even excessive use of candles can lead to a build-up of soot if not ventilated.

What is the harm from smoke and soot?

Soot and smoke particles are about 2.5 microns in size. In comparison, the dust particles you see floating in the sunlight are about 40 microns, so soot is very small. This makes soot particles incredibly easy to be able to be breathed into the lungs. Particles can also be ingested or absorbed via the skin or eyes. In the 18th Century in the UK, parliament passed the ‘Chimney Sweepers Act’, as it was acknowledged that exposure to soot caused cancer. The risks have been known for a long time.

The problems that occur range from breathing problems and respiratory issues to bronchitis, asthma, strokes, heart attacks, and cancer. In NZ, hundreds of people die every year due to particle exposure, soot among them. Particle exposure is also a cause of around 5,000 asthma attacks and 30,000 lost workdays due to respiratory issues.

In particular, children, the elderly, those with breathing issues or weak immune systems are at a higher risk from soot-related illness or harm. Even short-term exposure in babies has been linked to lifelong negative health outcomes, as it can permanently change the baby’s respiratory system while it is growing and developing.

One of the biggest risks to an unborn baby is in the form of air pollution. It’s well worth keeping your home environment free from smoke and soot, for the health of the baby once it is born.

How long is soot and smoke toxic for?

Damage from fire, if not properly cleaned, can cause health problems for occupants for years. Soot and smoke are toxic for as long as they are present, and they need to be removed correctly in order to reduce the risk of harm.

Also, if the soot isn’t removed quickly, it can damage and erode painted surfaces, fabrics and electronics.

How to clean up from a fire?

If you’ve had a fire, it might be tempting to throw on a mask and use a degreaser and cleanser to wash down surfaces, repaint, and be done with it. But the long-lasting health impacts of poorly removed soot are huge and the only real solution is getting in the professionals.

It’s not just the soot either, but the associated water damage and possible mould and mildew problems too. Professionals use HEPA filtration and activated charcoal (air scrubbing and thermal fogging) to help that air quality return, while thorough cleaning while wearing full PPE ensure the soot particles are thoroughly removed without risk to our staff.

Here at TechClean, we have a 24/7 service, so we can be on-site when we are needed. We use a range of diagnostic tools to assess the damage, and perform a clean up that ensures no future worries or concerns. Contact us today to find out more, or book an appointment.

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