Tests show lead in falling ash flakes after Bloomington’s controlled house burn: Keep kids, pets away from ash

In connection with Friday morning’s controlled burn of a house on High Street by Bloomington’s Fire Department, ash flakes and dust fell on the neighborhood to the west.

Resident Matt Murphy, who lives about 300 yards from the burn site, immediately tested some flakes from his strawberry patch, among other places, for lead content. He used a kit manufactured by 3M, which is available in retail outlets.

The checks done by Murphy turned the test swabs red, which indicates the presence of lead. The B Square was able to replicate the same result with a different flake and test kit.

On Friday evening, Bloomington fire chief Jason Moore issued a news release that states: “Local health officials recommend keeping kids and pets away from the ash until testing indicates if it is hazardous.”

Testing will be done by Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). Moore’s release says IDEM was notified as soon as a complaint was received about potential lead contamination from the ash generated by the fire.

On a visit to Murphy’s street on Friday afternoon, The B Square bumped into Scott Frosch, an environmental scientist with IDEM’s emergency response team. Frosch was collecting samples and placing them in plastic bags.

Fire chief Moore’s statement issued late Friday continues: “If individuals want to pick up any of the ash, they are advised to wear gloves, place the ash in a sealable plastic bag, and to wash their hands afterwards.”

On the topic of the ash, the news release concludes, “Once testing results are available, further communication will be released concerning disposal.”

Reached for comment by The B Square, Gabriel Filippelli, who’s director of the Center for Urban Health at IUPUI said, “You probably would want to make sure that your kids are avoiding the outside temporarily—if in fact it proves to be lead contaminated.”

Based on reports of the 3M swab testing, Fillippelli said it sounds like there’s probably lead present in the ash. He added, “I don’t know—I’m only basing it on the swabs, not on our own testing.”

Fillippelli told The B Square that he’s willing to test samples, suggesting that someone in the neighborhood aggregate them and bring them in as a batch. That’s something Murphy is already doing. He showed The B Square a collection of samples he’d placed in plastic bags and labeled with a street address.

Fillippelli said it’s important to collect the samples now, not later. For outside areas, he suggests sweeping off porches or outside tables and putting the sweepings into a labelled plastic bag. For indoor dust, he suggests first emptying the contents of a canister vacuum, then doing a fresh vacuuming of the downstairs. The contents of the canister vacuum can then be bagged up and labeled.

Background on the controlled burn: Is burning of lead paint allowed?

The flakes that fell on Murphy’s neighborhood appear to be bits of paint.

Lead paint would be consistent with the 1951 vintage 6,200-square-foot house on High Street, which was allowed to burn to the ground on Friday by Bloomington’s fire department. That marked the end of a week’s training in the house by the department, which recently achieved a top ISO rating of 1/1x. The house was slated for a demolition, which was approved by Bloomington’s historic preservation commission earlier this year on April 22.

The owner donated the house for use as a live fire training exercise by Bloomington’s fire department. From Tuesday through Thursday this week, small fires were set inside the house using hay bales and wood pallets, to simulate “room and contents” fires. Firefighters trained communication and stretching hoses through an unfamiliar structure.

Bloomington’s fire department had authorization from Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to burn down the house in connection with the training exercises. According to an IDEM spokesperson, the office of air quality received a fire training request from Bloomington’s fire department on Sept. 7, 2021 and issued an approval on Sept. 17, 2021.

The IDEM approval was issued based on the requirements of the Open Burning Rule (326 IAC 4-1), according to an email message to The B Square from IDEM’s spokesperson.

IDEM’s emailed response to The B Square says the Open Burning Rule does not prohibit the burning of lead-based paint. The email message continues, “[H]owever, IDEM recommends that any fire training follow lead safe work practices.”

Lead safe work practices related to renovation, repair and painting, maintained by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that  “Open-flame burning, using heat guns at greater than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit and the use of power tools without high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) exhaust control (to collect dust generated) are prohibited.”

According to the World Health Organization, there is no known safe blood lead concentration. The WHO states, “Even blood lead concentrations as low as 5 µg/dL may be associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems.”

Several materials in the High Street house were removed before the burn, according to the Monday news release issued by the city before the Tuesday training started.

Among the materials that were removed, according the city’s news release, were furniture, carpeting, asphalt roofing shingles, roofing underlayment, and vinyl siding. According to IDEM’s conditions for the burn, all asbestos-containing materials also had to be removed.

Reaction: Legislation?

City councilmember Dave Rollo lives in the neighborhood where the ash fell.

Rollo told The B Square it’s not OK just to point to the fact that IDEM approved the controlled burn. Rollo said, “By the looks of it, since it was approved by IDEM, it seems that this was…done by the book. But this doesn’t really get us off the hook, in my mind.”

It’s not enough to cite the IDEM approval, Rollo said, because: “We have now as a result people who have a lead contamination issue in their yards, in their homes, being tracked in by their children or themselves or their pets.”

Rollo is considering a possible ban on such burns in the future. He said, “I am considering legislation to prevent future burns of this nature within the city.”

Reached by The B Square, chair of Bloomington’s environmental commission Andrew Guenther said he would be putting the topic of the controlled burn on the EC’s agenda for its next meeting.

Guenther said he would probably draft a resolution asking the city council to specifically prohibit the burning of toxic or known dangerous substances within city limits—including structures that the fire department might burn as part of their training.

Guenther said that burning of buildings as a part of training exercises should be done with dangerous and toxic substances in mind. Efforts should be made to limit the exposure for residents, he said.

Reaction: Remediation?

Rollo stressed that right now there’s a lack of information about the ash and its impact: “How much of it has been ingested? It certainly was in the air in particulates when people were out walking this morning. That may be impossible to know.” Rollo said there should have been air monitors set up around the house during the exercise.

If remediation of some sort is done for the ash flakes, it could cost enough that it would require the council, as the city’s fiscal body, to approve an additional appropriation.

Responding to a B Square question, Rollo indicated that if remediation is needed, then he would support the additional appropriation pay for it.

Murphy sketched out a scenario for swift remediation, because, as he put it, “I’m not going to wait for somebody in two weeks to come up with a response.”

Murphy suggested that a disposal company could provide roll-off dumpsters with a containment cover, which would accept leaves mixed with lead paint. The city should pay for those dumpsters to be dropped at different locations in the neighborhood, Murphy said.

Affected property owners would then collect their ash debris and deposit it in the dumpster. Under Murphy’s scenario, the dumpster contents would then be taken to an approved facility.

Photos: Ash flake collection

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Photos: Final burn Nov. 5, 2021

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Photos: Training on Nov. 4, 2021

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5 thoughts on “Tests show lead in falling ash flakes after Bloomington’s controlled house burn: Keep kids, pets away from ash

  1. I certainly support any actions Council can take with all expediency. But a larger question is raised concerning the decision-making process under which this burn was undertaken. Was there any attempt to involve neighborhood residents prior to this decision being made? It would appear that a last minute “press release” notification was issued, at best. This is yet another example of the lack of transparency with which this Administration operates. We should also take note of the fact that this area hosts both an elementary school and churches: an area where many children live and many food-producing gardens are grown. This persistent pattern of disdain and disrespect shown to neighborhood residents and their elected representatives must end.

  2. You say you “bumped into Scott Frosch, an environmental scientist with IDEM’s emergency response team.” No discussion to share? No questions answered? I’d hope you at least asked some questions — and you can indicate if he refused to answer those questions — but now wonder if any questions even were asked…

    1. Frosch was not authorized to speak to the media. That’s something that could have and should have been more usefully included in the running text of the original piece.

  3. I strongly agree with Dave Rollo’s and Jean Simonian’s concerns. How can we call this a “controlled burn” if it leaves neighbors with a toxic substance in their yards? I’m happy that Chief Moore issued a warning about the ash so quickly after the burn. But perhaps it would have been better if someone had more thoroughly explored the potential for dispersing lead flakes throughout the neighborhood before the burn?

    This Administration’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to communicate in a timely fashion with residents continues to be alarming.

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