The fire at a Walmart fulfillment center Wednesday triggered serious concerns about air quality and toxic debris. In response, state and environmental officials have set up a monitoring network to measure both air and water impacts, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced at a Friday afternoon press conference.
The network is focused on the areas downwind from the facility where impacts would be the greatest, said Jim Mitchell with EPA. The fire began around noon Wednesday at the facility in Plainfield, about 15 miles west of downtown Indianapolis.
The EPA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management are actively monitoring the air to determine the chemicals that may be present in the smoke, Mitchell added, but at this time the main concern is fine particulate matter. There are no concerns identified with other compounds at this time, according to the EPA.
Exposure to high levels of particulate matter could cause health problems for certain individuals, including young children, the elderly or those with cardiovascular conditions such as asthma.
IDEM issued an Air Quality Action Day for Central Indiana — including Boone, Hamilton, Hendricks and Marion counties — Thursday afternoon. Such days are issued when ozone or particulate matter in the air rises above certain levels and may become unhealthy. The advisory has since expired.
Walmartfire: State warns of air quality impact, touching toxic debris
How will rain affect conditions?
Friday’s rain could drive many of the still-suspended smoke particles out of the air, the EPA representative said, and onto the ground and into waterways. The agencies will monitor any potential impacts, Mitchell said.
Environmental agencies and local health departments are also working with water utilities to monitor water supplies. Those utilities have existing sampling and treatment systems in place for drinking water, Mitchell said, and they are increasing their testing during this time.
Officials said they do not expect an impact to drinking water supplies, including residents using well water. Citizens Energy Group is performing extra water quality sampling to make sure supplies remain healthy.
Testing will continue for at least the next several days, according to Mitchell. The results are currently pending and there is no specific information to release at this time, he said.
In the meantime, EPA, IDEM and local health departments have shared recommendations for Hoosiers to stay safe and healthy in the aftermath of the fire. Officials released Friday a document with a list of precautionary measures for residents downwind of the fire.
High levels of fine particulate matter may cause health problems for people with pre-existing cardiovascular or lung problems. Anyone experiencing health issues after being exposed to the smoke should contact their doctor, according to the document.
Officials also recommend wearing an N95 or KN95 mask when outdoors if in a smoky area, adding that cloth masks do not provide the same level of protection.
Debris and ash could be very toxic, according to officials. If fallen ash or debris needs to be cleaned up, officials recommend wearing gloves and regularly washing hands throughout the day and taking extra showers if needed. Large pieces of debris should be removed with gloves and a shovel and placed into a garbage bin.
Mitchell also suggested wearing an N95 or KN95 mask to help protect against any particles that may circulate when clearing out the debris. The debris could be fragile and fall apart when being removed, putting citizens at risk of inhaling dangerous particles.
Cleaning up outdoor surfaces
If the ash is in yards or driveways, officials recommend using a hose to clear it away and not a leaf blower or another device that may spread the ash back into the air. Hard surfaces, such as countertops and tile floors, should be wiped down and washed with soapy water.
The same is true for children’s toys, swing sets, barbecues as well as outdoor furniture. Children should not be allowed to play in or with items covered with ash and debris.
Debris floating in retention ponds or other surface waters should be removed and put in the trash while wearing gloves and a mask.
Cats should remain indoors, and dogs should be on a leash around areas where debris is present. Do not let pets drink from contaminated puddles, and wash any debris from their paws if they happen to walk over an area with ash.
Cleaning HVAC systems
Residents running heating or air conditioning units should clean or replace the HVAC filter, this will help make sure it’s effective if any particulate matter is in the air.
Officials recommend using gloves and wearing a mask while replacing or cleaning the filter, and to then circulate the air using the system’s “fan” or “recirculate” options. Window AC units should have the outdoor air damper closed.
Officials at the Hendricks County Health Department have set up a hotline if anyone has questions or concerns about the lasting effects of the debris. The dedicated phone number is 317-718-6052.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.