CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal agency that was monitoring air quality during an enormous fire at a Parkersburg warehouse reports that it detected spikes above the 24-hour standards for the Air Quality Index.
Most at risk to the changes in air quality would have been those with pre-existing health conditions or the elderly or the very young, officials said.
The 420,000 square feet of property, which was storing recyclable plastics, caught fire early Oct. 21 and burned for the next eight days, sending a plume of smoke billowing over the city and across the Ohio border.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has provided guidance on public health in response to the fire. Its findings were relayed by Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
“The need for additional studies is being considered by ATSDR and other federal health agencies,” the federal officials wrote. “If it is determined that there is a need or benefit for additional studies, state and federal health agencies will work through local authorities to conduct those studies.”
Additional air monitoring was conducted by the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health working for Wood County authorities, beginning the Monday after the fire started.
So far, the federal agency indicates, people in the areas potentially affected by the smoke have done well protecting themselves following the advice from local officials.
The primary concern cited by the health officials is “spikes” in particulate matter — in other words, soot — detected by air monitoring in the opening days of the fire.
The spikes have been above 24-hour air quality standards for open air for brief periods of time during the day or night.
Many of the spikes occurred after midnight until just before dawn, usually lasting for periods of less than an hour up to about 4 hours. Then the concentrations dropped below the air standards.
The agency estimates that the spikes ranged from “good” to “hazardous” on the Air Quality Index.
Otherwise, the concentrations dropped below the air standards.
Because of wind conditions and the hilly nature of the ground around the warehouse, it is not known how long these higher concentrations have lasted in any given area away from the sampling locations.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency advises that for “hazardous” air quality conditions from particle pollution, sensitive groups (people with heart and lung disease, older adults and children) remain indoors and keep activity levels low, and that others avoid all physical activity outdoors.
County and local officials offered very similar advice in response to the fire, suggesting that people stay indoors and avoid the smoke.
Air quality improved dramatically the weekend following the fire. Results then were in the “good” to “moderate” air quality index ranges.
Officials noted that smoke from any fire irritates the lungs, nose, and throat. Once exposure to the smoke from this fire has stopped, any symptoms should subside fairly quickly.
If anyone has persisting symptoms, they should consult their personal healthcare provider.
Because information on the contents of the warehouse has not been certain, the air monitoring by federal officials focused on particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) and less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) to track the smoke from the fire.
These particulates are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs and are usually a good indicator of potential health issues.
Even the strong smell of plastics could have made people feel sick, the federal officials noted. Common symptoms would include headaches, nasal congestion, eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea and cough.
“There have been strong plastics odors as well as typical combustion odors in areas where the smoke has been. Information on what would be causing these odors is not known. The public health implications of these odors cannot be determined until additional information is available,” wrote the federal agency.
“However, strong odors in air can cause symptoms in people. Symptoms from odors vary based on your personal sensitivity to the odor. In general, as the odors from the smoke increase, more people may experience symptoms.”
When additional information on the contents of the warehouse and the air and water quality becomes available, a better appreciation of the potential health effects of this fire can be made, Messina said.
Messina reported earlier this week that IEI still has not sufficiently complied with an order to detail exactly what materials were stored at the site.
Representatives of Intercontinental Export Import, Inc. submitted records by email on Sunday and in person on Monday, he said.
“WV DEP has concluded that these records do not sufficiently satisfy the Order for Compliance, and specifically its directive requiring detailed inventory of all materials that were burned at the site,” Messina stated in a Tuesday update about the fire investigation.
Last Thursday, DEP issued an order to Intercontinental Export Import, Inc., demanding immediate information about what materials were stored on the property. DEP is also demanding to know how IEI plans to properly dispose of the material.