Bloomington mobilizes to remediate potential lead ash hazard after controlled burn of house, aims to “err on the side of caution”

On Saturday, after Friday morning’s controlled burn of a house on the city’s east side, fire chief Jason Moore and deputy chief Jayme Washel were going door-to-door talking to neighbors who live west of the burn site.

The top fire officials were informing residents about the potential hazard from the ash that fell Friday on the neighborhood near the house at 1213 High Street, which was burned as a part of a week-long series of training exercises at the house.

Neighbors were also given information about ways they could approach remediation of the ash. Emergency funding has been authorized by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton to pay for work by a disaster remediation company called SERVPRO, Moore told The B Square.

A web form to request remediation of outside areas has been set up for residents by the city of Bloomington. Affected residents don’t have to pay for the remediation.

A web page about the controlled burn, which has been set up by the city of Bloomington, includes instructions about how to wet wash areas inside a house. According to the city’s web page, “Wet washing is the best way to clean up lead dust.”

[Updated Oct. 8, 2021 at 6:52 p.m. The city of Bloomington issued a news release just after 6 p.m. on Monday with some updated information. Among the updates: The service provider initially identified for the cleanup was apparently not able to deliver the requested work. From the news release: “After encountering delays in contracting with one environmental remediation company, the BFD is working to identify and contract with an alternate service provider to conduct the evaluation and cleanup, to be offered at no charge to affected residents.”]

Also on Saturday, firefighters had gone up on the roofs of some houses in the neighborhood to wash solar panels and skylights. They’d also raked up leaves containing ash.

The potential hazard from the ash is due to the probable lead content, based on tests done Friday morning by residents, immediately after it fell on their property. The tests were performed with a kit made by 3M, which is available in retail outlets. The test shows the presence of lead, but not the concentration.

A door hanger was left at houses where there was no answer when top fire officials knocked. The door hanger gives a link to the page about the controlled burn that has been set up on the city’s website.

The door hanger reads in part, “[I]n the interest of safety and an abundance of caution, we are recommending that cleanup of any visible debris begin immediately. Again, we do not know of any imminent danger to your health at this time, but we want to err on the side of caution.”

The lead content in the ash from the fire is consistent with the 1951 vintage of the 6,200-square-foot house that was burned, which was likely covered with lead-based paint.

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.

According to IDEM, the state’s Open Burning Rule does not prohibit the burning of lead-based paint. An email message from IDEM to the B Square stated: “[H]owever, IDEM recommends that any fire training follow lead safe work practices.”

Among the questions that remain to be nailed down is how great the risk of lead exposure to area residents was from ash in the air on Friday morning, and is from the ash now on the ground.

The fire department’s message in a news release late Friday was: “Local health officials recommend keeping kids and pets away from the ash until testing indicates if it is hazardous.”

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.”

Does the ash fall from Friday’s controlled burn pose create the potential for lead to enter the bloodstream?

When The B Square spoke to fire chief Moore during his Saturday visit to the neighborhood, he said the initial word from IDEM is that it’s a “relatively small issue.” According to IDEM, Moore said, the risk is not as great from an acute exposure—it’s chronic exposure that is a greater worry.

The lead concentration in the ash from the fire won’t be known until IDEM reports its test results. An environmental scientist from IDEM was in the neighborhood on Friday afternoon collecting samples.

One of the IDEM field scientist’s tasks was to try to determine the extent of the ash fall. Resident Matt Murphy lives about 300 yards west of the burn site. It was Murphy who prompted Saturday’s reaction from the city, by reporting the positive result of the lead testing he had done on flakes that fell in his yard.

Murphy told The B Square he’d heard reports of ash falling as far away as Jordan Avenue (soon to take on the name Eagleson Avenue). That’s about 700 yards away from the burn site. Based on the anecdotal reports he’s heard, Murphy said the pattern seems to be narrow but long. One neighbor, who drove by when The B Square was talking to Murphy, reported they’d seen no ash on their property.

Already on Saturday, before the city had secured the services of SERVPRO, Murphy rented a large industrial vacuum to suck up the ash-covered leaves on his lawn.

A few houses to the west, Sarah Pearce was taking a more targeted approach. She was using her regular indoor canister vacuum with a HEPA filter, with the crevice attachment on the wand, to remove the visible flakes in her lawn that she could identify.

Pearce taught elementary school teacher in Chicago, where many of the children in her classes had serious lead poisoning that came from their environment, Pearce told The B Square. She said had seen first hand the impact that lead can have on child development.

On Saturday, fire chief Moore dropped by Murphy’s house to give him an update. “I really appreciate your working with me on this. We did take it seriously. We are taking it seriously,” Moore told Murphy.

Moore added, “I’m not going to say [mayor John Hamilton] wrote me a blank check, but he said, Let’s deal with it, and we’ll worry about what it costs, and where the money is coming from, at a later date.”

One thought on “Bloomington mobilizes to remediate potential lead ash hazard after controlled burn of house, aims to “err on the side of caution”

  1. There are large ash flakes in my yard on the 1000 block of S Hawthorne which is several blocks west of Jordan Ave…

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