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What Are The Health Risks of Sifting Through Ash?

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News
People sifting through the rubble today at Word of Life Church off US 21 in Bastrop. One health experts says there's no immediate risk from ash exposure for healthy individuals.

An estimated 1,554 houses in Bastrop have been reduced to rubble. People are now returning back to their homes and sifting through the ash to salvage anything they can. The Red Cross urges people to wear dust masks and coveralls, so we were wondering just how dangerous sifting through the ash could be.

“If you have no underlying lung disease, it’s not all bad by itself,” Dr. Grant Fowler with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School told KUT News. “If you have underlying asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, COPD, then it can be a very serious problem with inhalation because you are already living on restricted airways.”

Dr. Fowler says some toxic chemicals can be released from materials when they are burned and make the ash dangerous to healthy individuals. But he says the biggest inhalation risk comes from people being in a house during an active fire, a much different situation than what someone would encounter when returning to the scene after the blaze is extinguished.

He says that while some people were drawing comparisons to New York City after the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, that’s an entirely different scenario than scouring the burned out skeleton of a home.

“It’s probably not going to be as high a level of concentration as the people in New York were exposed to,” he said.  “By and large, most people can tolerate it pretty well.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Fowler says there's no harm in wearing a mask, just to be safe.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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