Dangers of Smoke after Fire Damage - Must Read for Homeowners

If you’ve recently experienced a fire, this is a must-read for you and your family. After the fire has been extinguished, chances are that you’ll still have a lot of lingering smoke in your house until the damage is properly repaired.

Now, you may think that you can deal with the damage on your own. Huge mistake. Smoke from fires is not only unpleasant but also highly, HIGHLY toxic.

In today’s guide, we’ll explore just how dangerous is smoke after fires and then how to properly deal with it without harming yourself.

What Makes Smoke so Harmful?

Let’s first start with the basics. To understand why smoke is so harmful, you first need to get to know where it comes from and what it’s made of.

When a material is burned, it undergoes a chemical reaction in which it combines with oxygen from the air, releasing energy in the form of heat and light. This process is called combustion. During combustion, the material’s molecules break apart and recombine to form new molecules, releasing various byproducts into the air, including smoke.

The composition of smoke can vary widely depending on what is being burned, but it typically includes carbon particles, carbon monoxide and dioxide, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, soot, and other toxic gases, chemicals, and compounds produced during the combustion process.

We’ll cover each of these elements now:

Carbon Particles

Carbon particles, particularly fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 and PM10, can be very dangerous to human health and the environment.

These particles are tiny, with diameters of 2.5 micrometers or smaller for PM2.5 and 10 micrometers or smaller for PM10.

They are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs and can have several adverse effects:

  • Respiratory Problems: Inhaling carbon particles can lead to respiratory problems such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Fine particles like PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs and aggravate conditions like asthma and bronchitis. Long-term exposure to carbon particles can result in decreased lung function, especially in children and individuals with preexisting lung conditions.
  • Cardiovascular Issues: There is growing evidence that exposure to PM2.5 is linked to heart problems, including heart attacks and arrhythmias. These particles can enter the bloodstream and affect the heart and blood vessels.
  • Environmental Impact: Carbon particles can contribute to air pollution and have negative effects on plant life.

It’s worth noting that the health effects of carbon particles depend on various factors, including the concentration and duration of exposure, an individual’s overall health, and the size of the particles.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly toxic gas often found in smoke. 

House fires can release significant amounts of carbon monoxide due to the incomplete combustion of various materials, including wood, plastics, textiles, and other household items. The lack of sufficient oxygen in a fire can lead to the formation of carbon monoxide gas.

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, making it difficult to detect without specialized equipment. This is why it is often referred to as a “silent killer.”

Carbon monoxide in house fire smoke poses a severe health risk to everyone present. When inhaled, carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in the bloodstream, forming carboxyhemoglobin, which reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. 

This can lead to oxygen deprivation in vital organs and tissues, potentially resulting in symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, headache, nausea, and even loss of consciousness.

High levels of carbon monoxide in house fire smoke can be lethal, causing rapid incapacitation and death.

To protect against carbon monoxide exposure during a house fire, it is essential to have working smoke alarms and, if possible, carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home.

If a fire has happened, it is crucial to follow fire safety measures, evacuate the premises immediately, and call emergency services. DO NOT re-enter a burning building to retrieve belongings, as doing so can expose you to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide is a normal part of the combustion process.

However, it’s important to note that while carbon dioxide is produced during fires, it is generally not the primary concern in terms of health and safety.

In moderate concentrations, it’s not harmful. However, in high quantities, it can contribute to a lack of oxygen.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a group of organic chemicals that can be emitted as gases or vapors into the air. During fires, VOCs are released into the atmosphere as a result of the combustion of various materials, and they can have both short-term and long-term health effects.

VOCs can originate from a wide range of sources that burn during fires, including wood, furniture, textiles, plastics, paints, cleaning products, and more. These materials contain organic compounds that can be vaporized and released into the air when they burn.

The specific VOCs emitted during fires can vary widely based on the materials involved. Common VOCs include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, formaldehyde, acrolein, and many others. These compounds can be harmful, and some are known to be carcinogenic or neurotoxic.

For individuals who have been exposed to high levels of VOCs during fires, there may be long-term health concerns. Health monitoring and follow-up care may be necessary to address any potential health issues.

It’s important to note that the specific VOCs present in fire smoke can vary depending on the materials burned and the conditions of combustion.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals can be found in the smoke and ash resulting from house fires. A fire can burn household items and construction materials that may contain heavy metals, including:

  • Lead: Lead can be present in older paints, plumbing materials, and various household items.
  • Cadmium: Cadmium can be found in batteries, some paints, and plastics.
  • Mercury: Mercury is present in some types of light bulbs, thermometers, and electronic devices.
  • Arsenic: Arsenic can be found in treated wood, older pesticides, and some construction materials.

Inhaling or ingesting heavy metal particles or vapors can lead to health problems, including neurological, respiratory, and gastrointestinal issues. Additionally, heavy metals can persist in the environment and may contaminate soil and water sources.

Soot

Soot is a black, powdery or flaky substance composed primarily of carbon, but it can also contain small amounts of other materials such as metals, organic compounds, and ash. 

It is also a byproduct of incomplete combustion, typically resulting from the burning of carbon-based materials like wood.

Soot is comprised of particulate matter that we’ve covered above, making it highly dangerous if inhaled.

Other Toxic Gases

Besides carbon monoxide, house fires can release a variety of other toxic gases, including:

  • Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN): Hydrogen cyanide is a highly toxic gas that can be produced when certain materials, such as plastics and synthetic polymers, burn in a fire. Inhalation of hydrogen cyanide can result in severe respiratory and central nervous system effects.
  • Hydrogen Chloride (HCl): When materials that contain chlorine, such as PVC pipes, burn in a fire, they can release hydrogen chloride gas. Inhalation of hydrogen chloride can irritate the respiratory system and cause throat and lung damage.
  • Ammonia (NH3): Ammonia is a pungent gas that can be present in cleaning products and refrigerants. When these materials burn in a fire, they can release ammonia fumes that irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Burning materials containing sulfur, such as certain household cleaning products, can produce sulfur dioxide. Besides irritating the respiratory system, it can contribute to the formation of acid rain.
  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOx): Combustion can produce nitrogen oxides, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
  • Phosgene (COCl2): In rare cases, house fires involving materials like refrigerants or certain chemicals can release phosgene, another highly toxic gas.

All of these can have very bad effects if inhaled. This is why we consistently preach caution when dealing with fire damage throughout this website. 

How to Deal With Smoke Damage

We highly, HIGHLY recommend avoiding DIY fire damage restoration and instead calling our professionals to deal with the damage for you. Again, we cannot emphasize this enough.

If the dangers outlined in this article still won’t stop you from trying to attempt to clean smoke on your own, here are some steps you can follow:

  1. Ensure Safety:
    • Before reentering your home, ensure it is structurally sound and has been cleared for safety by local authorities or firefighters.
    • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, goggles, and an N95 respirator mask, to protect yourself from inhaling harmful particles and chemicals.
  2. Ventilation:
    • Open doors and windows to ventilate the area and help remove residual smoke and odors.
  3. Assessment:
    • Document the extent of the damage for insurance purposes. Take photos and make a list of damaged items and areas.
  4. Remove Contaminated Items:
    • Dispose of any items that are severely damaged or can’t be effectively cleaned, such as porous materials like mattresses, upholstery, and carpeting.
    • Remove any spoiled food from the refrigerator and pantry.
  5. Cleaning and Restoration:
    • Clean all hard surfaces, walls, and ceilings with a mixture of water and a mild detergent. Use a sponge or cloth to scrub away soot and smoke residue.
    • Consider using specialized cleaning products designed for smoke damage cleanup.
    • Wash and disinfect all dishes, utensils, and cookware.
    • Clean and sanitize HVAC systems, ductwork, and filters. Consider hiring professionals for this task.
    • Launder or dry-clean all clothing, linens, and curtains. Check with professional cleaners if needed.
    • Thoroughly clean and sanitize kitchen appliances, including the stove, oven, and refrigerator.
  6. Odor Removal:
    • Address lingering smoke odors by using air purifiers and deodorizing products.
    • Consider using activated charcoal or baking soda to absorb odors.
    • You may need to repaint walls and ceilings with a special primer to seal in odors.
  7. Inspect and Repair:
    • Have a professional inspect the electrical and HVAC systems for any damage caused by the fire.
    • Address any structural damage, like weakened beams or walls.
  8. Replace Smoke Alarms and CO Detectors:
    • Ensure your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are functioning correctly. Replace batteries or units as needed.
  9. Prevent Future Incidents:
    • Take steps to prevent future fires, such as checking and maintaining electrical systems, installing smoke alarms, and having a fire extinguisher on hand.

That’s about it for today. Hopefully, you’ve found a little bit of value in this post. Want a professional to restore fire and smoke damage for you? 

Call us today for fire damage restoration!

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