Indiana and Ohio residents living near the site of a large warehouse fire are warned not to handle any debris from the blaze because it may contain asbestos

The April 11 inferno at the former My Way Trading warehouse, a recycling plant in Richmond, Indiana, caused widespread asbestos debris and toxic smoke to pollute the area. 

“It is essential not to remove or disturb any debris believed to be from the fire as these materials may contain asbestos, a substance which releases microscopic fibers when disturbed,” according to a notice to residents from the Environmental Protection Agency. Residents who find debris on their property are asked to contact the EPA and allow experts to handle removal. 

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, was widely used in insulation and building products prior to the 1980s. Although it is highly regulated today, many people have become ill or died due to asbestos exposure. An estimated 40,000 Americans succumb to asbestos-related illnesses every year.  Exposure may cause mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

EPA contractors have collected debris from 16 schools, 10 day care centers, two parks in Indiana and Ohio and a community center. Richmond city officials announced the EPA is now collecting debris from residential properties. They encouraged people not to touch, move or mow over any potential debris from the fire. EPA officials will flag the area and remove the debris.

Plastics at Warehouse Caused Toxic Smoke Plume

Richmond city officials had previously taken the warehouse owner to court due to unsafe building violations. It’s unclear how the fire started, and the cause is still under investigation. A day after the fire ignited, Richmond Mayor David Snow said a fire “was a fear for us.”

“We were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard,” Snow said in a press conference. 

The blaze released a toxic chemical cocktail into the air. After the fire, EPA air monitors found hydrogen cyanide and benzene, among other chemicals, in the air. This has since dissipated, and the fire was officially extinguished on April 18.

The Richmond Sanitary District and Indiana Department of Environmental Management are testing water samples for any chemical spills, but there have been no reports of fish kills or disturbance to wildlife, according to the EPA.

In the first two months of 2023, there have been at least 30 reported potentially dangerous chemical spills across the country. An unrelated toxic spill in Ohio earlier this year following a Norfolk Southern train derailment caused a massive fish kill after chemicals flowed into nearby waterways. The derailment led to lawsuits against the railway company

How to Clean Your Home After a Toxic Fire

The warehouses involved in the Indiana fire contained tons of plastic materials. The blaze released toxic smoke over the city of Richmond that drifted into nearby Ohio, officials said. Ash and soot from the fire rained down on the city afterward.

Wayne County Health Department officials released the following information about how to clean your property following a fire:

Outdoor Debris Removal: Do not move or try to clean up any suspicious debris from the fire. Instead, contact the EPA and leave it alone. Clean surfaces with a regular garden hose to wash away ash, soot and dust. A mild cleaner with a damp cloth can be used to remove residue.

Leftover Food: Dispose of fresh food that shows signs of damage or spoilage. Put items in a trash bag, seal properly and discard immediately. 

Interior Cleaning: Use gloves while cleaning and wipe down any surfaces that appear to have ash or dust, and clean high-touch surfaces. After cleaning, wash your hands with gloves on, before removing the gloves. Heating and cooling filters can be replaced to reduce potential odors.

Surfaces: Wash hard surfaces with soap and water. For soft surfaces, first vacuum any visible residue and air out the home while doing so. If residue remains, wash with soap and water.

Laundry: Launder clothes at normal temperatures for the item. Adding 1 to 2 cups of vinegar can help remove odor and residue. Some items may need to be washed multiple times. 

Pets: Keep pets on a leash or indoors in debris-impacted areas. Do not let animals drink from puddles or eat food or drink water that was left outside during the incident. Wash away soot from animals’ paws promptly. Any pet toys left outside should be washed before use.

The Wayne County Health Department created these guidelines with assistance from the American Red Cross and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.