An EHSC member recently asked us about the big fire at the Jordan’s Meat plant in Portland’s East End on May 6. Specifically, he asked about the potential release of toxic chemicals from foam insulation used for refrigeration at the plant, or from other toxic building materials, and whether the firefighters or bystanders were warned about possible exposures and the need for protective equipment.
The short answer is that yes, fires at businesses and homes can and do release dangerous toxic emissions. For example, vinyl products (like siding or flooring) and products treated with brominated flame retardants can release dangerous emissions when burned. EHSC has worked closely with the Professional Firefighters of Maine to support policy changes that protect both consumers and firefighters, including Maine’s bans on brominated flame retardants and an important recent law that makes it easier for firefighters to be compensated when they contract cancers caused by exposure to chemicals on the job.
Other important work to reduce the dangers posed by toxic chemicals in building materials is being done by our national allies, the Healthy Building Network. (http://www.healthybuilding.net/)
Public disclosure of chemical use, storage, and transport is also critical, which is why EHSC has supported the federal Toxics Release Inventory, Maine’s Toxics Use Reduction law, and other public information policies. If cities, towns, and fire departments or other emergency responders don’t know dangers present at a fire or accident, they can’t protect themselves and residents.
There is some reporting required by certain facilities about their use or storage of some hazardous substances, but the chemicals covered and the reporting required is fairly limited, and is not likely to include chemicals used in building materials. There is also some emergency planning required for some facilities. But whether the limited reporting and planning required is fully integrated into city and firefighter operations and responses is a very different question, especially in these days of budget cutbacks.
We’ve invited both Portland firefighters and city officials to respond to this post with more information or their reactions, and – as always – we encourage discussion and comments from EHSC supporters here too!
Maine Emergency Management Agency on hazardous materials at fixed facilities: http://www.maine.gov/mema/prepare/prep_hazard_display.shtml?id=14910