House fire: Learning Self-defence
July 2006

   Did I mention how much soot and ash gets into every crack and crevice of the house when youíve had a major fire? Iím sure I have, ad nauseum. Not only does the smoke get everywhere, but thousands of gallons of water too. Water pours through the burn, picking up soot and cinders, then runs through the walls and floors. It fills drawers and cupboards, soaks sheets and furniture. It gets into your electrical panel, runs over your lampshades, and pools behind your closets. And usually itís toxic. Our roof was insulated with high-density Styrofoam. The upstairs room (which was incinerated) had electronic equipment, a mountain of Lego, a foam mattress and camping pad, snorkelling and boating gear, batteries, computer cables, shiny magazines, a CD player and a collection of CDs. All of which, when burned, produce or release dioxins, furans, endocrine disruptors and heavy metals.

  The day of the fire, the first insurance adjuster on the scene cautioned us not to touch anything, as the soot was toxic. Since then Iíve done some research and found out that the soot is highly acidic as well. Iíve learned that PVC plastic, when burned, produces hydrogen chloride gas. When combined with water, this forms hydrochloric acid. No wonder the kitchen utensils that were left on the sink lost their chrome, or that the soot-water that ran down the back of the stove caused it to rust immediately. The blisters that erupted on my hands when I salvaged some of our burned photos were from acid burns.

  What really distressed me was that the workers who cleaned out our house didnít wear respirators. Depending on the day, they were either emptying soot water or handling burned objects or shovelling out mouldy cinders. When the burned roof was pulled down, clouds of charcoal filled the house. The lead carpenter  (who smoked like a cowboy) didnít seem to mind at all.

  But I mind. Iím a mother, and Iím not having my boy live in a toxic house. Iíve also got asthma and am sensitive to all sorts of common soaps, dyes, glues & perfumes. So this is a challenge. One Iím rising to with utter determination.

  Iím not used to being forceful. Like most women, Iíve been taught to be nice. When people Ė or situations Ė become intolerable I usually duck, cover and run.  Or take a deep breath, count to ten, and tell myself that this too shall pass. Being (relatively) easygoing and flexible are skills that have worked well for me in my daily life. But they donít work in this case. For this, weíve had to stand firm.

  My spouse and I have both had to be strongly assertive, even bullish, in order to obtain our rights. Weíve had to argue over and over for every square inch of our house to be cleaned, for new wood to be put in and for all trace of soot to be removed. Iíve written countless notes, emails and memos saying, ďThis needs to taken out, this needs to be sanded down, this must be cleaned and sealed.Ē If it doesnít happen, we say it again. We canít let up, or before we know it, what we requested has been covered up, turned under or painted over.

  With pleading eyes Iíve dragged the reluctant carpenters into corners, showing them toasty black residues. Iíve made notes of problem areas and explain them to everyone who will listen Ė and especially to those who donít.   In the evenings and weekends Iím in there scrubbing the floors and posts with my own two hands. Itís a full-time job. But Iím protecting our health, our home and our son. And there is nothing that will stop a mother from doing that.

Diana Lynn



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