Questions remain on toxic soot


Aug. 03--GHENT -- Depending on the quantity and kind of chemicals burned in the fire in Columbia County, produce, animals and humans may have been exposed to dangerous fallout.

Department of Health officials said an undetermined amount of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) went up in the conflagration that began Wednesday night. And an accounting of all the various chemicals that burned is still underway and results of lab research of air and soot is awaited.

Health experts raise the possibility that highly toxic substances, particularly dibenzofurans and dioxin, may have been created from the burning of PCBs and chlorinated benzines found in transformer oil.

Furans and dioxin are more dangerous than PCBs, said Dr. Arnold J. Schecter, professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Schecter, the Broome County health commissioner when the state began a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the contaminated Binghamton State Office Building, where a PCBs fire caused a highly toxic soot that spread throughout the tower, in the 1980s. He had more questions than answers about the TCI fire and the toxic chemicals in the smoke.

"The question would be: Were they formed; what was the amount; and did they get into people or food, or are they likely to get into people or food?"

"What you'll want to know is what toxic chemicals were present; does the company have a list and how much?" he continued. "Where were the toxic chemicals likely to have spread. ... What precautions are being taken to make sure animals and the food supply have not been contaminated."

"It's possible there is no problem at all," he said. "It's possible it is the other extreme." He said one drum of PCBs, if it converts to dibenzofurans, would be a public health concern.

Edward Horn, the retired former director of the state Department of Health's environmental health assessment unit, said if substantial contamination occurred, residents near TCI would see soot. He added that a very intense heat would have been required to convert PCBs and other chemicals to furans and dioxin.

Because any fallout would have spread over the countryside concentrations of any toxic substances should be modest, Horn said, but he would like to know how much PCBs burned. "A lot of fires will generate small amounts of dioxin and dibenzofurans," he said. "But those compounds will form more, depending on the conditions of the fire and what else was there. The big issue is how much was involved?"

Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said he had not heard any concerns from farmers in the region. Eric Ooms, who runs A. Ooms & Sons dairy farm at the Kinderhook-Chatham line about eight miles from the fire, said about 2,000 dairy cows are within the 15-mile radius of Ghent and state regulators have not warned of potential milk contamination. Several dairy operations, hundreds of acres of corn, most of it for livestock feed, produce farms and organic vegetable farms are near the TCI site, he said.

"To the naked eye everything seems OK," Ooms said. "Milk is your most regulated product you have. Something like this, I'm sure they'll go over it with a fine-tooth comb."

jodato@timesunion.com --518-454-5083 --@JamesMOdato

Cleaning up

In areas where there is a visible accumulation of soot, here are some precautionary cleaning measures:

Exterior surfaces: Use water and detergent to spray off accumulated deposits. Use a stronger cleaning solution if the surface is sticky.

Air conditioning vents and filters: Inspect air conditioning units for visible dust and soot before turning them on. Replace disposable filters and wash reusable filters.

Interior surfaces: If dust or soot is visible inside a building, clean with detergent and water in a bucket and change water frequently. Vacuuming should only be performed with a High Efficiency Particulate (HEPA) vacuum or equivalent.

Source: State Department of Health

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