Local doctor explains health impacts of Clean Harbor’s fire in Braintree

DEDHAM, Mass — Dr. Anjan Devaraj, a pulmonary and critical care attending physician at Tufts Medical Center, spoke with Boston 25 News to explain the potential health impacts of the Thursday fire at Braintree’s Clean Harbor.

Residents were told to stay in their houses as fumes erupted from the burning chemicals. Devaraj says officials made the correct call as potentially dangerous fumes spilled into the air.

“Usually when we’re worried about damages from toxic fumes, we’re worried about both the duration of exposure as well as the concentration of the fumes in the air,” said Devaraj. “ Knowing the amount in the air on a second-to-second basis is a little bit tricky especially in the middle of the night when the fumes may be rapidly dissipating and spreading out.

“The other issue is that if you have two people, both equally exposed to the fumes, they may have very different reactions. One person may live their life with no lung damage and the other may have significant lung damage.”

Devaraj says that if anyone were in the vicinity of the fire and felt a burning sensation in their throat or chest, they should seek medical attention.

“That probably is evidence they had enough exposure to have some lung damage,” said Devaraj. “The good news is the majority of people who have exposure to toxic fumes and these types of injuries actually do recover without lasting damage.”

Firefighters responded to the area of Hill Avenue after multiple tractor-trailers went up in flames at the waste management company and battle the blaze until the early hours of the morning.

“First responders in these types of fires typically have two big dangers they’re exposed to. One is the actual heat of the fire itself. That in of itself can actually burn the back of the airways and the lungs,” explained Devaraj. “The other is toxic fume damage.”

According to Devaraj, the Braintree fire was so dangerous due to the possibility of harmful gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride sprouting from the chemicals involved.

“These substances can actually damage the lungs in a few different ways,” said Devaraj. “One way is they can actually cause direct toxin damage. This is almost similar to getting a chemical burn on your skin but in your lungs. Another way they can affect the lung is they can actually change the morphology of the lungs so you’re more prone to asthma. There’s a subtype of asthma called RADS where you get a nominal asthma-like attack that just doesn’t go away over the next days, to weeks to months.”

In an update early Friday morning, hours after the blaze was knocked down, Braintree officials said, “The immediate threat has been resolved. There are no known injuries at this time. Clean Harbor officials are expected to make a statement later today.”

However, Devaraj says the air quality index indicated it was safe for the majority of Braintree residents even during the course of the fire.

“Last night in Braintree, the air quality index was actually less than 50. Any number between 0 to 50 is actually the best ranking for air quality. During the fire and a few hours after, the air quality dipped and was actually in the 50 to 100 range. To put that in perspective, an AQI of 50-100 is actually still safe to go out but we ask people who are very sensitive to poor air quality like people with asthma to stay inside.

“When the official said things have returned to normal, the AQI had actually dipped back down to less than 50.”

While those near chemicals fire sometimes develop symptoms of asthma or heart problems, Devaraj says it’s hard to predict any fallout right now.

“Without knowing the exact sort of compounds that were ultimately in the air and the net total exposure people would have had, it’s tough to sort of quantify your risk in the future.”

There were no reported injuries in the fire.

An investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.

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