Cancer, lung disease risks of exposure to industrial fires, health experts say in wake of Point Douglas blaze

The health effects of a large industrial fire in Point Douglas could last long after the firefighters extinguished the last hot spots, experts say.

The fire in the former Vulcan Iron Works warehouse complex on Sutherland Avenue sent plumes of smoke billowing over the central Winnipeg neighborhood for hours on Tuesday, prompting firefighters to evacuate a three-block area and colored people nearby to stay inside, with their doors and windows closed.

The building contained vehicles, tires, propane tanks and other materials, firefighters said.

“We’re familiar with the issues of tobacco smoke, and we’re now very familiar with the issues of wildfire smoke — but tire fire smoke is a whole different level,” said Neil Johnston, a registered respiratory therapist who is president and CEO of the Manitoba Lung Association.

The smoke from a fire like Tuesday’s contains a “cocktail” of noxious gases and particulates that can get deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and potentially leading to long-term health problems like cancer and cardiovascular disease, Johnston said.

“There’s sulfur dioxide gases, nitrogen oxide products, which react with water and other things in the air and cause strong acids to be formed. So you’re essentially inhaling acid.”

People with lung disease are at greatest risk, but even healthy people could contract serious illness from continuous exposure to smoke, Johnston said.

WATCH | Large industrial fire in Point Douglas:

Large industrial fire triggers evacuation of 3-block area in Point Douglas

Plumes of dark smoke rose over Winnipeg’s Point Douglas neighborhood on Tuesday morning as a large fire tore through an industrial complex, triggering the evacuation of the nearby area.

Firefighters on the scene faced particularly high risk, says the head of their union.

“I can say first-hand, that when you’re showering after a fire, your skin is going to be gray, if not black,” said Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

“That gets in your pores, into the filters of the body, and that’s what … scares us the most, is that stuff turning into cancer and so on down the road.”

Toxic smoke can coat surfaces

Firefighters have faced an increasing number of large fires in recent years, particularly in vacant buildings, Bilous said. These fires pose a higher risk, because firefighters are often heading in without knowing what is inside.

The protective equipment firefighters wear does an excellent job against radiant heat, but the material needs to breathe so they don’t overheat, Bilous said.

“By virtue of that, we do get in contact with these carcinogens and smoke…. Until science can catch up and make something that is not so permeable, I think that will always be the case.”

To mitigate some exposure effects, Winnipeg firefighters have changed their occupational hygiene procedures, said Bilous.

They bag gear and shower immediately after fires, and the department has introduced a new system to swap out dirty gear for clean gear, he said.

Johnston also warned that contamination from industrial fires isn’t limited to the air. The toxic black smoke coats nearby surfaces, and collects in water used to douse the flames. Those chemicals can be absorbed through the skin.

When an industrial fire breaks out, anyone in the immediate area should leave if they can, Johnston said. If you can’t, you should close your doors and windows, and use an air purifier or filter system, if you have one.

A properly fitting N95 mask can also reduce particulate matter, but it won’t protect against gases.

Johnston also said anyone who experiences respiratory symptoms such as coughing, burning in the chest, wheezing, increased sputum production, dizziness or heart palpitations should seek medical attention.

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