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Polluting materials: Fire-related incidents

Hazard Knowledge

Fires in combustible materials, such as those found in bulk at storage or waste sites, can create large volumes of polluting smoke. Fires can spread, be very deep-seated and burn for a prolonged period. They may also have several seats of fire. For more information refer to Fires in waste sites – Stacked materials.

The direct application of water, with or without firefighting additives, to stacks of burning material is often ineffective and may generate large volumes of contaminated fire water run-off, containing a wide range of pollutants.

Smoke plumes

Smoke plumes may contain pollutants that will be deposited when the plume grounds, which can be carried into the ecosystem by rain. Smoke plumes may affect surrounding buildings and residential areas, including vulnerable populations, for example in hospitals, schools and residential homes.

Although people who may be affected by the smoke plume can take shelter from the smoke plume by staying indoors with doors and windows closed, this may not be sustainable if the fire is protracted.

Fire water run-off

Contaminated fire water run-off is a form of polluting material that should be dealt with by using the control measures for the hazard of Polluting materials. It can affect the environment through:

  • Direct run-off into a body of water
  • Soaking away into the ground
  • Entering drainage systems, which may transport fire water run-off pollutants into:
    • Rivers
    • Lakes
    • Estuaries and the sea
    • Groundwater
    • Sewage treatment works

Introducing a heated liquid into a watercourse is also a form of pollution, as it may cause deoxygenation or kill aquatic organisms. For more information refer to Foundation for environmental protection - Surface water, groundwater and foul and surface drainage systems.

Firefighting foam and additives

Although firefighting foam is a polluting material, this should not stop fire and rescue services from using it if required. Using foam can have environmental benefits, such as reducing water use and extinguishing a fire more quickly.

Firefighting additives, such as wetting agents, are also polluting, even when used in low concentrations.

When using firefighting foam or wetting agents, appropriate pollution control will be required to limit any environmental impact.

The main environmental effects of firefighting foams are:

  • They can lead to deoxygenation of water
  • They can be toxic to aquatic life
  • They may present risks to drinking water supplies
  • Some compounds in them do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in plants and animals

For more information refer to Foundation for environmental protection - Firefighting foam and additives.