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Wednesday, June 2, 2004 Issue 2   VOLUME 4 ISSUE 6  
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Prompt Response Helps Woods Hole Return to Business
by EH&E Staff

In the fall of 2002, a fire occurred at the end of the business day in a four-story laboratory that is part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, MA. The fire was limited to a power supply for a piece of research equipment in one of the labs located on the first floor, but smoke and soot spread to other parts of the building. The building was evacuated and smoke/soot damage was extensive, but fortunately there were no injuries. While the lab in which the fire occurred and adjoining spaces were isolated, the rest of the building was reoccupied once approval was given by the local fire department. However, occupant concerns about potential health impacts from the residual soot and odors prompted Ron Reif, Manager of Environmental Health and Safety at WHOI, to contact EH&E to perform an assessment.

EH&E responded immediately, and the same day took air samples within the building to determine if conditions posed an imminent hazard to the occupants – they did not when compared to the appropriate workplace environmental standards. The next day, EH&E’s engineers and building forensic specialists took a closer look at the HVAC system to determine the most likely pathways for the distribution of smoke during the fire and took wipe samples from the interior ductwork, from filters and from exposed surfaces in the affected areas. The samples were specifically tested for combustion by-products and known materials contained in the power supply, including several potentially toxic metals.

The results of the testing were received within 24 hours and showed that outside of the lab in which the fire occurred, levels of heavy metals in the soot were well below federal workplace limits and did not pose a threat to occupants during their normal activities within the building. The testing also provided EH&E and Ron with a map of the areas within the building, and HVAC system components, that required further cleaning or replacement. Since low levels of lead were found in many of the samples, this was subsequently used as an indicator for spot checks of the building after the cleaning process to verify removal. EH&E also provided Ron with assistance and oversight of the cleaning process to ensure that pollutants were not distributed during the process.

Finally, using the building inspection and laboratory data, EH&E was able to perform an exposure assessment to address the occupant concerns about potential health effects during and immediately following the fire. The assessment found it very unlikely that occupants were exposed to elevated levels of pollutants, and joint meetings were subsequently held with occupants to present the findings and answer any remaining concerns and questions.

“Out of all the consultants that I contacted to address this emergency indoor air quality situation, EH&E was able to commit to providing immediate, turn-key services to address the very real concerns of the building occupants” said Ron. “EH&E's services were responsive to our requests, professional, and they helped us to cost effectively target the extensive soot cleanup efforts that resulted from this fire”.

Courtesy of WHOI
Courtesy of WHOI

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