When the Walmart Distribution Center in Plainfield was destroyed by fire in March, the sky over the warehouse was blackened by a giant smoke plume.
That smoke drifted north and east leading the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue an Air Quality Action Day advisory for Hendricks, Marion, Hamilton and Boone counties.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency has released a report listing worrisome levels of benzene, arsenic and thallium in the smoke.
There was no detection of asbestos.
“The measurements came down fairly quickly within those four days when the fire was still smoldering,” said I-U Professor Sarah Commodore, Ph. D, who has studied the effects of air pollution around the world. “I would say probably within four or five days it was probably very well evenly dispersed and diluted out.”
Gina Thatch was living just west of the Walmart site when the fire occurred.
“The debris was hitting my car and there was a lot of stuff in the atmosphere,” she said. “You could smell it in the air. It seemed like it was a couple days later when I really noticed it.”
Gina said she kept her windows closed the rest of the week and stayed inside as she wondered was in the air.
“Its alarming, nobody wants to think they’re breathing anything other than clean air,” she said. “We may not know for a while either. Sometimes things like that take some time.”
Bob Grubbs lives a block away from the ruined warehouse site.
“The smell was bad for at least a week but there wasn’t a whole lot of debris,” he recalled. “If the smell travels, so does the wind currents and carrying all the fumes.”
Professor Commodore said any impact from the smoke was likely to be temporary.
“You can breathe a sigh of relief that was really bad that initial impact. It’s kind of like a wildfire when it happened at that time it was really bad and then when the air is all cleared and it’s better with the trees and the nice breeze, its okay.
“Anyone that’s compromised in any way in their airwaves or whatever it is, they definitely can feel the impact even weeks after the fire.”
The Hendricks County Health Department said it is not aware of any uptick in reported respiratory issues due to the fire’s aftermath.
Bob Grubbs figures whatever was in that smoke cloud is the price of living near a consumer packaging warehouse.
“Things like that are always a concern,” he said. “It’s not a surprise to me because I know what things are made out of and they probably had everything under the sun under roof over there. It could be anything that burned up.”
We reached out to Walmart for a statement and this is what we received:
“We’ve responded to claims from those impacted by March’s Plainfield fire. Regarding the recently released report, I’ll refer you to the EPA for a response.”
We also received the following report from U.S. EPA:
“On March 16, 2022, a Walmart warehouse in Plainfield, Hendricks County, Indiana, was involved in a devastating fire. Multiple agencies and departments responded to or supported the incident, including: Plainfield Fire Territory and other fire departments, Hendricks County Health Department (HCHD) and Marion County Public Health Department (MCPHD), Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Environmental Protection Agency.
Fire smoke and debris is known to contain harmful compounds and through public statements made March 16 and 17, Plainfield Fire Chief advised the public to shelter in place and stay indoors and avoid touching fire ash debris to err on the side of caution. On March 18, 2022, the city of Plainfield held a combined press conference and released “Community [Frequently Asked Questions] for Plainfield Warehouse Fire.” The FAQ addressed several questions, including: instructions to continue avoiding smoky areas as well as new handling precautions for collecting and disposing of fire ash debris on personal property.
EPA collected the following measurements at Plainfield Warehouse Fire from March 16-21:
- EPA collected field monitoring measurements for: explosive gases, volatile organic compounds (VOC), hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide, and oxygen.
- VOCs and PM are usually present at some level in background outdoor air and are anticipated to be elevated in smoke from fires.
- EPA field monitoring instruments detected VOCs and PM at Plainfield Warehouse Fire.
- VOCs were not detected above screening levels provided by public health officials.
- PM was detected above screening levels in the areas where the public was advised to shelter in place.
- EPA collected air samples for laboratory analysis of VOCs.
- VOCs are usually present at some level in background outdoor air and are anticipated to be elevated in smoke from fires.
- Lab analysis for VOCs can differentiate between individual VOC compounds.
- EPA identified the following VOCs at Plainfield Warehouse Fire through sampling and lab analysis:
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Carbon Tetrachloride
- Concentrations detected are not expected to result in adverse health effects for short exposure durations, such as a fire lasting several days.
- Fire ash debris samples
- EPA collected three fire ash debris samples from different downwind community locations for lab analysis.
- Asbestos analysis:
- Asbestos can be in older building materials and may be released during structure fires. The Plainfield warehouse was newer construction and asbestos was not anticipated. Asbestos analysis was conducted out of an abundance of caution.
- Asbestos was not detected in samples EPA collected at Plainfield Warehouse Fire.
- Metals were not detected in debris samples.
- Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC)
- SVOCs are usually present at some level in background outdoor air and are anticipated to be elevated in smoke from fires.
- Lab analysis for SVOCs can differentiate between individual SVOC compounds.
- EPA identified the following SVOCs at low concentrations at Plainfield Warehouse Fire through sampling and lab analysis:
- 1,1 – Biphenyl
- Di-n-butyl phthalate
The FAQ and EPA’s full report on monitoring and analysis is available at https://response.epa.gov/plainfieldwarehousefire.”