ATSDR Plays Key Role in Bringing Peace of Mind to a Group of Firefighters
Dense smoke and flames were erupting from the roof of the Flexible Circuits Copper and Lead Tin Plating factory in Warrington Township, Pennsylvania, when the first fire crews arrived on June 7, 2009.
"It was definitely a major fire. It took almost 24 full hours to completely extinguish it," said Warrington Fire Company Captain Andrew Groman. Emergency personnel knew that the company used highly toxic chemicals in their products. But they were most concerned about the potentially hazardous effects of the burning roof structure.
The color of the smoke made Captain Groman suspicious. "I saw yellowish and bluish smoke coming out from the building and that made us think that something might have been involved that was not normal." As smoke filled the sky, nearby residents were asked to stay indoors and keep their windows and doors closed.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the county HazMat team were called to the scene to assess potential health hazards for the firefighters, the community, and the environment. As they fought the blaze, some firefighters noticed they had trouble breathing.
"By 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. the next morning, after 13 hours fighting the fire, I started feeling tightness in my chest. I was having trouble getting a deep breath, and I was feeling that I was almost wheezing," Captain Groman said. "At that point I went to the hospital to get checked out."
Firefighters became concerned about potential exposure to toxic substances. Warrington Fire Chief, Michael J. Bean, said that by the end of the day, about 50 firefighters and other emergency response personnel had visited the hospital.
At EPA's request, ATSDR sprang into action. Within hours, regional representative Robert Helverson assembled a team of experts to investigate the hazards of exposure to the smoke and fumes from the fire. Helverson called on ATSDR toxicologists, two other federal agencies, and the Poison Control Center (PCC) to provide their expertise in the search for answers.
The agencies gathered data and Helverson compiled it. Less than 24 hours later, in a joint meeting with EPA, he brought firefighters the eagerly awaited news that their exposures were relatively minor and the effects would only be temporary. The Poison Control Center labeled the event an "exposure to irritants." ATSDR's Helverson offered firefighters further peace of mind when he told them that the PCC expected that long-term adverse health effects from the exposures would be unlikely. He provided further contact information for the different agencies involved in the investigation. By the end of the day, all emergency responders had been released by the hospital. A year and a half later, Fire Chief Bean reported that the firefighters involved are in good health and not suffering from any known effects from the exposure. Captain Groman continues working with the Warminster County Fire Department and has not suffered any adverse effects after being treated at the hospital.
ATSDR regularly provides this type of assistance to promote a healthy and safe environment and prevent harmful exposure to toxic substances.
ATSDR is directed by a congressional mandate to perform specific functions concerning the effect on public health of hazardous substances in the environment, including emergency responses and health consultations and assessments.
You can learn more about ATSDR's mission, goals, core values and organizational structure by visiting its Web site www.atsdr.cdc.gov.